COAL CITY – In his years as a Shorewood police officer, Jeff Hanley never got into police patch collecting like some of his fellow cops.
But after retiring from the force and becoming the Grundy Area Vocational Center’s criminal justice instructor three years ago, Hanley finally decided to pick up the hobby and incorporated police patch collecting into his class’s curriculum.
After just a few years of writing to departments throughout the country, Hanley and his high school students have curated what is becoming an extensive collection of embroidered patches.
As of this year, the class has collected more than 50 distinctive patches from departments from Connecticut to California and almost everywhere inbetween.
“What’s unique about it is all of them kind of tell the story of whatever department or city they came from,” Hanley said.
A class favorite is the patch from Salem, Massachusetts, which features two witches riding on broomsticks, emblematic of the city’s historic Salem witch trials.
Current and former students of the criminal justice program gathered nearly all of the patches through a class writing assignment. At the end of each school year, Hanley tasks each student with finding and sending a letter asking for a patch to a specific police department.
The first year, Hanley had students write only to Illinois police agencies, but said few of the departments responded to the students’ letters. The next year, he broadened the scope of the assignment to any police agency in the country.
“I try to encourage every student to pick a department outside of Illinois,” he said. “They have picked some interesting places.”
Coal City High School junior Zach Terlep wrote to the Boston Police Department this year because he is a Red Sox fan, and classmate Kevin Myers wrote to Gary, Indiana, because he had a relative who worked in the city.
Alicia Headrick, a junior at Gardner-South Wilmington High School, chose Wilmington, North Carolina, because, it had the same name as her hometown.
“Whenever I type in my school’s homepage, that city always comes up,” she said.
Hanley grades each student on his or her writing and requires a strict revision process.
“It’s got to be perfect, because you’re mailing it to a police department,” Hanley said.
Enclosed with each letter is a GAVC criminal justice patch, which Hanley had designed specifically for the class project.
“There seems to be a better response if you send them something to trade,” Hanley said.
Of the agencies that respond, many provide a history of the department and thank the student for the GAVC patch, as many places have patch collecting programs of their own.
Others offer advice to the aspiring law enforcement officers.
“Try to assist the public and not just from a law enforcement standpoint,” wrote Chief Robert Sherwin of the Crystal Falls Police Department in Michigan. “You should be able to listen to people and take your time, don’t make it seem that you are trying to rush them.”
Hanley gives students the option to keep their patch, but several students pin their patches to the classroom map showing the reach of the annual assignment.
This year’s class has already received two patches, one each from St. Louis, Missouri, and Tomahawk, Wisconsin.
“It’s a good of end of the year assignment,” Hanley said. “It’s sort of a celebration of everything they learned.”