The Creation & Evolution of the NYPD’s Medal of Honor? New Facts Revealed!

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Mayor Awards Medals to “Roll of Honor” Men

What’s the Deal With: The Creation & Evolution of the NYPD’s “Medal of Honor?” New Facts Revealed!

 Introduction and Background

The Medal of Honor (MOH) is the highest order of recognition of the City of New York Police Department (NYPD), and the information that follows is a comprehensive examination of its origin and evolution. Previously published articles, as well as an excellent book published in 2003, have addressed the MOH, but none of these sources addressed the fact that one version of the medal was modeled after a Fire Department of New York (FDNY) medal. 

It was not until 1845 that The City of New York created a well organized police force. There were no official police department medals awarded until after the end of the Civil War in May 1865.  It is believed that military and police commanders of the period felt that awarding medals may create animosity,  jealousy, and accusations of favoritism amongst the men.  Others held the position that there was an ethical and moral obligation to recognize those worthy individuals, who went beyond what was expected of them, in the extraordinary performance of their duties. Time has proven that there was, and remains, good and ample reasoning behind the decisions to mark those heroic and courageous acts by men and women. 

In a 1853 New York City newspaper, an article containing an order issued by the Commissioners of Police, Metropolitan Police Office, London, England appeared which may have influenced the city, and its police regarding promotions and merit. The order acknowledged the improper influence of private citizens in the appointments and promotions of police officers and ordered that no such influence be tolerated upon penalty of dismissal from the police force.  The article stated that the same should apply to New York City’s police department and in every branch of public service.  A point was made that since the creation of the London’s Police Commission, such influence was greatly diminished and that promotions henceforth should be made on the basis of “merit,” rather than “favor.” But how would such “merit” be recognized and recorded?

 An Act to Establish the Metropolitan Police District was passed on April 15, 1857. The Act did not provide for the awarding of medals by the department and forbade its police officers from receiving any reward for “meritorious and extraordinary services.”

Step 1: Circa 1865 – Recognition by Honorable Mention

Shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War, the New York City Board of Police Commissioners began to consider, and favor, the concept of recognizing and awarding medals for acts of valor. Their decision may have been influenced by the following facts:  1) the aforementioned article about London’s force, 2) in 1861 the United States Navy and Army had each established Medals of Honor for individual members, 3) during and after the Civil War there were many examples of individual heroism and valor which were recognized by the awarding of medals, and 4) the sight of uniformed men adorned with medals must have been an impressive sight to behold.

The first step for the police department was to publicly acknowledge and document those who distinguished themselves with valor in the performance of duty. The same was accomplished by way of notations in official city and department records, a written order or citation, or the addition the officer’s name to a roll of merit.  This recognition was officially called “Honorable Mention” (HM). The maintenance of such a record was an important first step towards recognizing the need to establish a medal system.


Step 2: Unofficial Medals

Absent official medals, individual citizens (or their relatives), who were the beneficiaries of an officer’s valor or courage, had a jeweler create a medal for the officer. These medals served as an expression of appreciation, to acknowledge the act, and reward the officer.  Such medals were called “private medals” by the city and department and required approval from both before the officer could take possession of the same.  Some medals were accompanied by a cash reward. These medals were not permitted to be worn on uniforms.

An example of one application to present a private medal to an officer occurred in 1875. The application was made by the citizens of Washington Heights, a northern Manhattan neighborhood. The gold medal was made to recognize the meritorious conduct of Patrolman (Ptl.) McKenzie, of the then Thirty-second Precinct (believed to have been the Tenth Ave. and One Hundred Fifty-second St. Station-house), for surprising a gang of burglars at a house near St. Nicholas Avenue and 117th Street which resulted in the officer being severely beaten.

Another example, clearly indicates the difference in the awarding of a private medal versus an official department medal. In August 1887, the Police Board approved an application by Harris Cohen “for permission to present a medal to Ptl. James Namm, Sixth Precinct, for bravery at a fire, No. 134 White street.” Note that the approval was for Mr. Cohen to present the medal, not the department or the board.

Beginning in 1855, or earlier, dozens of such medals referred to as “Citizen,” “Endowed,” or “Donor” classes were paid for outright by individual citizens, citizen groups, businesses, or other entities. These medals were typically designed by collaboration and consultation between the donor and, perhaps, the police department. Produced by the finest jewelers such as Tiffany and Company and Dieges and Clust, these medals are an amazing sight to behold.  Additionally, there were other types of non-departmental classes of medals awarded by national, state, and city municipalities, and other entities such as volunteer lifesaving organizations.

The entity would nominate the recipient. The department and the city would approve the nomination and the medals were awarded (more typically than not) on the occasion of the Annual Police Parade, which later became referred to as “Medal Day.”  These medals were permitted to be worn by the officer on their uniform on special occasions, unlike the earlier “private medals,” which were not permitted to be worn. 

 The image below, depicts examples of one officer’s medals. The top left is a Treasury Department’s Silver (2nd Class) Life Saving Medal. Below that medal is a HMB, and to the right is the obverse and reverse of a private medal awarded to the officer, Ptl. Samuel S. Cox, for his heroic rescue of a family from a fire.

The top left is a Treasury Department's Silver (2nd Class) Life Saving Medal. below that is a HMB and to the right, an ornate gold private medal.
The top left is a Treasury Department’s Silver (2nd Class) Life Saving Medal. below that is a HMB and to the right, an ornate gold private medal.

 Step 3: 1871 -The First Official Department Issued Medal

On April 5, 1871, the Police Department was the city’s first municipal department to officially award individual medals for valor.  The first medal for valor, called the “Meritorious Conduct Medal” was awarded on August 17, 1871, to Patrolman (Ptl.) Bernard Tully of the Nineteenth Precinct (West Thirtieth St. Station-house) for the capture and arrest of a burglar.  Newspaper accounts indicated that Ptl. Tully was beaten “insensible, and his life was despaired of” by a “ruffian named Keeler” whom Ptl. Tully attempted to arrest. Sixteen officers received this medal between 1871-1884.

Many individuals, including: The NYPD, Major League Baseball, The Society of American Baseball Research, The New York Times, and others  have erroneously attributed the first officer to earn the medal as Ptlm. John McDowell. This is incorrect!

The medal was described as being made of “silver or gold, either of which could be awarded at the discretion of the commissioners. The medals were presented on an ad hoc basis with no specific date, place, or event being mentioned. The design and shape differed throughout its thirteen years of existence which were between August 17, 1871 and January 21, 1884 and was presented a total of approximately sixteen times. The interlocking letters “NY” in this medal may appear familiar. The logo of the New York Yankees baseball team was influenced by this design. Figure 1.


On February 26, 1879, Captain Thomas Byrnes of the Fifteenth Precinct (Mercer St. Station-house) was awarded a gold version of the medal for the “Arrest of thieves who robbed and assaulted Mrs. De Bary on Fish Ave.” The official records of the city, dated March 1, 1879, indicate that a resolution was adopted to make record of “highly honorable mention” for Capt. Byrnes’ act and that he is entitled to the “Medal of Honor.” While there was no medal by that name at the time, one must conclude that Capt. Bynes was issued the 1871 medal in gold rather than silver. A second 1871 gold medal was awarded in November of 1872. Captain (Capt.) John McElwain was awarded “an elegant gold medal by the Commissioners” for his actions in arresting John Scannell for the murder of Thomas Donoghue.  During the incident, Capt. McElwain was forced to threaten, at gunpoint, an unruly, angry mob intent on lynching Scannell.  In 1872, when Capt. McElwain was awarded the medal, the only official department medal in existence was the 1871 medal.

Step 4: 1879 – The Hierarchy of Honorable Mention Recognition

Prior to 1879, the HM and 1871 medal were the only recognitions for acts of valor. In 1879, a second level of recognition called “Highly Honorable Mention” (HHM) was found in the city records. The records disclosed that in cases where HHM was awarded, a certificate bearing the officer’s name and a description of the act was also presented. The highest level of recognition was now an HM, or HHM with certificate, and in some cases the additional award of an 1871 style medal.The following is an example of an HM with certificate: On October 26, 1878, the Board of Police “Resolved, That honorable mention be made in the records of the Department of patrolman (sic) James Quigley, Eighteenth Precinct for rescuing from drowning, at the peril of his own life, Henry Banter, who had fallen overboard at the foot of East twenty-sixth (sic) street, on the evening of October 13, 1878; and that the Chief Clerk be directed to cause this action to be suitably engrossed and presented to said officer.”The following is an example of a case in which a HHM with certificate and medal were awarded: According to the official records of the Board of Police, dated September 22, 1883, it was resolved that “highly honorable mention” be recorded in the records of the police department for the “gallant and courageous” actions of Capt. John Saunders, Twenty-third Precinct (East Fifty-first St. Station-house) for saving the lives of five drowning victims from the East River. The resolution concluded that Capt. Saunders “be awarded the Medal of Honor of this Department for his commendable action; and that this resolution be suitably engrossed and, with the medal, presented to the Captain.” The style of medal referred to is the 1871 medal, depicted in Figure 1. An example of an Honorable Mention with certificate can be seen below. The certificate was presented to Patrolman Lawrence H. Patterson, Forty-fifth Precinct (Rapalye and Richards Sts., Brooklyn Station-house) on September 18, 1899. It should be noted that the numbers (47 – in the top right corner) did not necessarily match the number stamped on the rear of the Department Badge issued to the same officer. 

1889 "Honorable Mention With Certificate"
1889 “Honorable Mention With Certificate”

There are ample examples in the records of the city of officers receiving “Honorable Mention” without having additionally been presented with a “suitable certificate” and/or a medal. The addition of the certificate and/or medal appears to have been made on a case-by-case basis before it became a matter of practice.


Step 5:  1888 & 1889 – The Second Medal in the Evolution

Initial Plans for an 1887 Presentation of Medals Mysteriously Derailed

The “Honorable Mention Badge” (HMB), also referred to as the “Honorable Mention Medal” (HMM) was initially planned to be presented on May 31, 1887, the occasion of the Annual Police Parade. More than six newspaper articles, from four different city newspapers, all dated between mid-May 1887 to the morning of the parade detailed the plans for the upcoming parade. On the morning of the May 31 parade, the New York Times reported that the men “will for the first time wear the new bronze medals recently adopted by the Police Commissioners.”  These articles indicated that the Police Commissioners (PCs) had ordered the creation of a bronze medal, struck in the shape of a miniature policeman’s shield and inscribed “Honorable Mention; Municipal Police Department, New York. Faithful Unto Death.” 

The PCs approved a proposal that would allow members of the police department, who had previously received Honorable Mention, and who were, Veterans of the Civil War, to form two battalions, march together, and wear their Grand Army of the Republic Badges on their police uniforms.  Another article added that the clasp of the new medal would be inscribed with the words “Honorable Mention.”  Yet another article similarly described the medal as in the preceding sentence with the exception of the word “Municipal” using “Metropolitan” instead.

The Annual Report of the PDNY for 1887, published in 1888, contains erroneous information. On pages 82 and 83, under the heading “Parade,” reads: “On Tuesday, June 1, 1887, occurred the annual parade…the members of the force who had received honorable mention for meritorious conduct in the Department, and who for the first time wore bronze medals issued by the Department for this purpose.” Another indication that the medals were not presented as expected in 1887 was found in an April 1888 newspaper article which reported that “the new medals of honor to be presented to all members of the force who have received honorable mention by the Police Commissioners are expected to be ready for distribution in time to be worn by the recipients at the coming parade of the force on May 31,” 1888. 

1888 – Expectations of the Awarding of the HMB/HMM Fulfilled

On April 20, 1888, the Police Commissioners, “fixed upon a design for the medal,” ordered the purchase of a die from which bronze medals were to be cast, and decided to award the medals to officers who had been previously awarded Honorable Mention. These medals were to be known as the HMB or HMM, and represented, in a tangible visible manner, the distinction of an officer’s name having been given HM, or HHM, for acts or courage, outstanding service, bravery, merit, and valor, while in the performance of duty. On May 18, 1888, the Board directed that the HMMs be awarded on the occasion of the Annual Police Parade, scheduled for May 31.

More than one city newspaper published articles between mid-May and May 31, 1888, which detailed the preparations for the parade and the plans to award the new “medals of honor (MOH).” An article in a city paper printed on May 28, 1888, provides further evidence that the medals were not issued in 1887, and more accurately describes the actual HMBs which were presented on May 31, 1888. Figure 2.

“The new medal is very striking in design and attractive in appearance. It is a cross of the Legion of Honor shape, instead of a Maltese cross as at first chosen. A circle in the centre, surrounded by the motto ‘Faithful unto Death – Police Department, N.Y.,’ has a policeman in full uniform, with a club at parade rest. An eagle with its talons resting on two clubs will be surmounted by a red, white and blue ribbon, held by a silver pin with the words ‘Honorable Mention.’ the medals are made of light-colored bronze and silver.” The medals actually bore a red colored ribbon.

Figure 2: 1888
Figure 2: 1888

On May 31, 1888, the occasion of the Annual Parade of the Police Department, approximately 2,400 policemen marched while another 1,000 maintained order over the tens of thousands of spectators lining the route. As planned, at approximately 4:00 pm, President of the Board of Police Commissioners, Stephen B. French, addressed the 100 men who assembled before him. Police Superintendent (today’s rank of Chief of Police) William Murray received the first medal with the remainder presented according to rank. Prior to the presentation, Commissioner French read from prepared remarks. Please see Attachment 1 at the end of the article for PC French’s complete remarks.

The second presentation of the HMB took place on June 5, 1888. Forty officers, who were not in attendance on May 31, received their medals from Police Commissioner French at a ceremony held at Police Headquarters, 300 Mulberry Street, Manhattan. 

In the event an officer performed a second act worthy of his being awarded an HMB, the officer would not receive a second medal, but only a second hanger bar, which would be suspended by two small, brass rings, from the first bar.  One such medal is known to exist in a private collection, that of the famous (some may some infamous) Sergeant Maximillian F. Schmittberger who survived scandal and retribution and rose to the rank of Chief Inspector (today’s rank of Chief of Department). Schmittberger wearing medal number twenty-three with two bars, accompanied by a photo of his actual medal, can be  seen below. 

Figure 3: Schmittberger & His Medal
Figure 3: Schmittberger & His Medal


1889 – New Names for the Same Medal Adopted

On January 15, 1889, the Board of Police Commissioners “established” the name of the 1888 HMB/HMM as the “The Department Medal.” After 1899, the medal was also referred to as the MOH. It should be noted that there were/are no physical differences in appearance from the HMB/HMM, MOH and the “Department Medal” of this period. Figures 2 and 4.

This medal, as well as its predecessors, the HMB or HMM, and the 1871 medal were, the highest order of recognition in the department.  Other medals, such as one paid for, created, and issued by Mayor Fernando Wood in 1855, as well as the aforementioned private, citizens, endowed and a myriad of others were not part of the evolution of the NYPD’s present MOH. In the years following 1889, the Medals of Honor were always numbered and, in some cases, may have been engraved with the recipient’s name.  Figure 4.

Figure 4: 1889-1911
Figure 4: 1889-1911

An exhaustive search of period newspaper and research sites failed to disclose a single instance where the term “Department Medal” was used. Rather, ample instances of the medal being referred to as the MOH were found. 

As the MOH was the only official medal awarded by the police department, it was referred to in the vernacular as the Department Medal. For example, on May 24, 1889, the Board of Police approved an application for the granting of “the Medal of Honor” to Patrolman Lawrence Clarson, Twenty-first Precinct (East Thirty-fifth St. Station-house). The medal was not referred to here by the Board as the “Department Medal.”

The Annual Report for the Police Department for the year ending 1889, under the heading “Honorable Mention,” indicates that only one HM was awarded for that year. The HM was awarded to Ptl. Meagher, Steamboat Squad, who rescued a drowning victim. Under “Medals Presented,” Ptl. Meagher was one of five men to receive a Silver Medal from the U.S. Lifesaving Benevolent Association. 

The Annual Report of the PDNY for 1911 provides a statement that helps to clarify some of the ambiguities encountered regarding interchangeability of the names used over the years. Under the heading “Department Medal” is the following: 

“It appears from  records of the Department that the custom of awarding official medals began in 1871. From that date until 1883 ‘A Medal,’ ‘A Silver Medal,’ ‘A Medal of Honor,’ and others variously designated were bestowed from time to time on deserving members of the Force. In 1883 the award and its description were established and standardized as ‘the Medal of Honor of the Department.” 

The use of the terms “Medal of Honor,” “Medal of Honor of the Department” and “The Department Medal” were used interchangeability. They all to refer to the only official, and highest, department issued medal.

Hierarchy of Recognition

The Annual Report of the PDNY for 1905, under the heading “Roll of Honor for 1905,” delineates a hierarchical system of recognition. From highest to lowest, three classes of recognition were noted: Honorable Mention with Medal, Honorable Mention and Commendation, and Commendation. In July 1906, “Excellent Police Duty” appears as a fourth order of recognition, beneath Commendation. All four levels were “based upon evidence of physical courage and risk of life,” conditions of which were the same for the “various medals for bravery awarded in the Department by gift go citizens.”

In 1905 an unusually high number of awards of recognition were awarded. Approximately 420 officers earned recognition due to their heroic actions on June 15, 1904 at the scene of a tragic fire. The “General Slocum,” a paddle boat and side wheel passenger ship, was on the East River when a fire broke out onboard. The fire resulted in the sinking of the ship. Aboard were 1,358 crew and passengers, mostly of German heritage. One thousand twenty-one passengers lost their lives that day.

Additionally, in June 1906, a new class of recognition for the Detective branch of the Department was created. According to the source, the Detective branch “does not have the same opportunities for display of physical courage as the uniformed branch, and yet its work is quite as important, often arduous and always requiring intellectual activity and skill.” Three classes of recognition were created: “Honorable Mention for Detective Work; Commendation for Detective Work; and Excellent Detective Work.”

The special considerations for determining which level of recognition was to be awarded for Detective Work were: difficulty of work involved, ingenuity, difficulty, patience, persistence skill exhibited, and preparation and presentation of legal evidence.

No insignia was created for recognition of Detective Work, that “being reserved for imminent risk of life.”  Detectives, of course, remained eligible for nomination for the medal of the Department, which required “great personal risk and danger to life.”

Representative Sleeve Stars Adopted

On April 22, 1906, Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham, who served in World War I as a General in the U.S. Army and was referred to sometimes while serving as PC as “General Bingham,” issued General Order Number 40, which addressed changes in insignia.  Perhaps it was General Bingham’s strong military background that led to his issuance of this order which addressed all of the insignia worn on the uniform and created a new insignia. The new insignia, referred to as a “sleeve star,” was ordered to be worn on the sleeves of officers who were previously awarded the above-described levels of recognition, and varied slightly depending on rank.

For officers who were awarded: Honorable Mention with Medal (four pointed gold plated embossed star), Honorable Mention and Commendation (four pointed silver plated embossed star), and Commendation (four pointed bronze plated star), were worn on both sleeves. The Order continued with specifications as to how the stars were to be placed when worn by Inspectors, Captains, Detective Sergeants, and so on. 

Chief Shmittberger wearing three sleeve star insignia devices.

Step 6: 1912 – PC Waldo Redesigned the PDNY’s Medal of Honor After the FDNY’s Department Medal 

On May 23, 1911, Mayor Francis Gaynor appointed FDNY Fire Commissioner (FC) Rhinelander Waldo as Police Commissioner (PC) of the PDNY to replace James C. Cropsey, who “resigned voluntarily.” In 1912, PC Waldo changed the system of recognition and the design of the MOH.

1912 PC Rhinelander Waldo
1912 PC Rhinelander Waldo

Hierarchy of Recognition Changed

Under the heading “The Department Medal,” the Annual Report of the PDNY for 1912 states: “Official recognition for deeds of exceptional bravery may be either ‘Commendation,’ or ‘Honorable Mention with Medal.’ These awards rank, in the order given, and the Department Medal, therefore, accompanies and is part of the highest award. In 1912, five such medals have been awarded.” The next section heading is entitled “Roll of Honor” and contains the ranks and names of the recipients, according to the hierarchical order indicated above. 


The Heretofore Untold Story of the Origin of the

1912 Re-design of the PDNY MOH

In 1910, FC Waldo initiated the design, creation, and institution of the FDNY’s Department Medal/Medal of Valor. This Tiffany & Co.™ made medal was the first official recognition for valor ever awarded by the FDNY. 

In 1912, PC Waldo initiated the redesign, creation, and replacement of the 1888 HM design. The newly created Tiffany & Co.™ made “Department Medal,” struck in bronze, remained the highest recognition of valor awarded. It remains unclear as to why PC Waldo decided that the twenty-four year old design needed to be changed. Perhaps it was simply that he desired that the two highest medals, of the two emergency service departments of the city, be uniform in appearance. What is clear, is that the new PDNY medal is very similar in design and appearance to what was the existing FDNY’s 1910 Department Medal.

When compared side-by-side to the new 1912 PDNY Department Medal, it is evident that the FDNY medal served as a prototype for the PD’s new medal. With the exception of a two minor adornments, they are the same design.  The differences are the use of oak leaves on the obverse of the PD medal instead of laurel leaves on the reverse and the use of laurel leaves on the PD medal instead of flames. See comparison in Figure 5.

Figure 5: 1912 FDNY Versus PDNY Medals
Figure 5: 1912 FDNY Versus PDNY Medals

Initially, in 1912, the medal ribbon was a light blue color. The standards, or qualifications, for being nominated for the 1912 medal were that it be awarded to officers, who with “extraordinary personal risk” to their safety and/or lives, exhibited “indomitable courage” in the performance of their duty. It was not until 1921 (retroactive to 1918) that the MOH was presented posthumously. These MOHs bore a maroon colored ribbon and were presented to the individual officer’s survivor(s). While the wording of the standards changed slightly in the 1930, in 1934 twelve stars were placed on a green colored ribbon. Figure 6. 

Figure 6: 1912-1972
Figure 6: 1912-1972

The first officer to receive the Department Medal in its new form was Acting Detective Sergeant (ADS) Charles S. Carrao, Shield 131, of the PDNY’s Italian Squad. ADS Carrao received the medal for his brave and heroic act of diffusing a bomb’s lit fuse which was inside of a tenement building on East Thirteenth Street on September 15, 1911. 

1912 Det. Sgt. Charles Carrao, Italian Squad, wearing the first MOH issued.
1912 Det. Sgt. Charles Carrao, Italian Squad, wearing the first MOH issued.

On October 10, 1914, PC Arthur H. Woods, signed General Order No. 19, which ordered that, effective April 22, 1915, The Department Medal would officially thereafter be named “The Department Medal of Honor.”

From 1912 through 1914,  between six and eight medals were awarded each year annually.  From 1915 to 1968, other than multiple posthumous awards being awarded, with few exceptions, only one MOH was awarded annually. 

Merit System for Promotion

In 1895, the Board of Police Commissioners, headed by the President of the Board, Theodore Roosevelt, along with an Act of State Legislature, enacted a Civil Service System for appointment and promotions in rank.  From that time through present, various measures have come and gone ranging from the immediate promotion to the next higher rank of officers upon their recipe of medals to points being added to the scores of medal awardees being added to written Civil Service Examinations.

In 1918, PC Richard E. Enright proposed that the New York State Senate pass Bill Number 1319 which, if enacted as law, would permit the promotion, to the next higher rank, “Medal Men” who were awarded the Medal of Honor, Rhinelander Medal for Valor, Isaac Bell Medal for Bravery or the Peter F. Meyer Medal despite Civil Service Regulations. It was PC Enright’s expressed opinion that the exiting system whereby medal earners were awarded additional points on promotional exams was insufficient recognition for their acts. Newspaper accounts following the April 1918 proposal, reflect that the law was passed and that men were in fact promoted absent civil service regulations. 

Representative Breast Bars Adopted

Representative Breast Bars were adopted in July 1922. PC Richard Enright issued an order calling for all 250 Honor Men to wear their insignia on their left breast (bars), rather than on their sleeves (stars). The Order was effective on/about August 1, 1922. The insignia was described as an enameled bar (1 1/2 inch by 1/4 inch) in green, white and blue stripes (the department colors) with a five pointed gold, silver or bronze star, depending on the level of commendation (Medal of Honor, Honorable Mention, and Commendation, respectively). One newspaper article described the adoption of the bars as an effort to provide the uniform “a more military appearance.” The bars  worn Honor Men, who were awarded the Medal of Honor, were authorized to the tri-color bar with a gold star. 

Representative Breast Bar

On April 8, 1935, PC Lewis J. Valentine, pursuant to a departmental order, that required all officers who had been awarded the Departmental Medal of Honor since 1918, presented, “for the first time,” “gold breast bars” to twenty officers. The order required that recipients “shall at all times when in uniform wear the insignia prescribed, indicating the award received.” 

The breast bars were described as being “gold, enameled green,” 1  3/4” long and 3/8” wide “sprinkled with twelve white stars.”

One of the recipients, Acting Lieutenant John F. Cordes, had the distinction (at the time) of being the only officer in department history to have twice been awarded the MOH. Acting Lt. Cordes’ breast bar was adorned with an oak leaf placed in the center.  

The 2009 revision of the NYPD’s Patrol Guide contains the following statement regarding where the breast bars may be worn. “The Department Medal of Honor breast bar, at the discretion of the recipient, may be worn over the right breast uniform pocket. When so worn, all other bars will be displayed on the left side, above the member’s shield. If uniform has no breast pockets, all bars will be worn on the left, above the shield.”


Step 7: 1973  – The Last Step in the Evolution of The “NYPD” “Medal of Valor”

In 1973, the MOH was re-designed by Detective (Det.) Alfred Young and the standard for the MOH being awarded was “gallantry and valor performed with knowledge of risk involved, above and beyond the call of duty.” The MOH was first awarded on October 23, 1973, posthumously to the the widows of five officers killed in the line of duty during 1972 and to two other officers who were present.

Upon approval of a second award of an MOH, an officer was/is authorized to affix a gold palm leaf to the ribbon. Between 1973 and 1996, the medal had a gold appearance. Beginning in 1997, the medal was struck in gold. Figure 7. 

Figure 7: Medal of Valor 1973 to Present
Figure 7: Medal of Valor 1973 to Present

Det. Young, who served as the Department  Historian and Curator of the NYPD Museum, wrote an article, published in 1977 by a national journal. The article provides information on the symbolism of the design. Det. Young wrote that the twelve white stars on the two evolutions (1934 and 1973) of the MOH symbolized the twelve Subcontables, appointed in 1700 by the Mayor of the City of New York. These Subconstables comprised the “City Watch,” a forerunner of today’s NYPD. The eight-pointed star symbolizes the first eight Watchmen, later hired to serve the City Watch. This symbolism is also present  in the 1845 wooden shield worn by then Chief Matsell. The color green, used in the ribbon, is the traditional color of the police force.  Figures 7 & 8.

Figure 8: 1845 First Chief of Police Matsell's wooden Shield
Figure 8: 1845 First Chief of Police Matsell’s wooden Shield

In 1997, all Citizen and Donor medals were removed from the medal system. The NYPD Medal of Honor, The Combat Cross, The Medal Of Valor and The Purple Shield are the only official NYPD medals awarded. From 1871 to date, there have existed approximately eighty different medals. These include: official PDNY, Citizen/Donor, and, since 1941, police department-affiliated professional and fraternal association medals.

Recognition & Acknowledgement 

The late, great John T. M. Reilly, a retired First Grade Detective of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), was a renowned historian of “the job.” In 2003, Det. Reilly published a limited edition book based on his years of labor and research three years prior to his untimely passing in 2006.  The book is entitled: Awards for Valor; The Medals of the New York City Police Department: 1871 to 1998.

This article was a joint effort and collaboration between the author and Lieutenant Edward Sere, FDNY, retired. Lt. Sere is a well-known, highly-regarded military, police, and fire historian who provided a wealth of information to the author and graciously created and provided the Figures for this article. Det. Reilly acknowledged Lt. Sere as having contributed a great deal to his 2003 publication.  

It has been an honor to build on the foundation laid by Det. Reilly and to have collaborated with Lt. Sere.

The images, and photos, in addition to the full content of this article, remain Copyright © 2016 All Rights Reserved, and may not be reprinted or used for any purpose without the express written permission of the author.


Note: Updated March 24, 2023 re: 1871″ Meritorious Conduct Medal


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Attachment 1: 1888 Commissioner French’s Remarks





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