How to Wear Your LAPD Ribbons

The author’s full ribbon rack showing all 16 of his awarded ribbons, with hash marks for reference.

It was at a graduation ceremony for those recruits just finishing their Academy training. One of the young recruits, who evidently had not been in the military, noticed one of his instructors wearing his Class A uniform with all of the trimmings on it, and he approached him to ask a question: “Sir, what do all those color bars mean?” The instructor looked down at his ribbons and replied, “Oh, these? The Police Department gives you these color bars when they want you to feel good about yourself.” The young man was impressed that the Department would care so much about their people that they would give out those color bars!

Of course, as we all know, those color bars are known as ribbons, and they represent various medals and honors that were earned by the recipient. In a way, they are like a mini-diary of your accomplishments while serving in your official capacity. But where did this tradition come from? History actually shows that, over the years, many who served were given various cloth banners of color to represent a special honor. In the U.S. military, it was during the Civil War when we really see this idea taking off. The Medal of Honor was the first and top medal to be given. Many in the command staff started to come up with their own awards to be given to their troops, and several became very noteworthy to obtain. After the war, the higher-ups in the military wanted to do away with such awards and make them all standardized. This eventually led to awards for various deeds of bravery, recognition of units and participation in major campaigns. By World War II, we start seeing a real growth in recognition awards. Flash forward to the modern military and we find a plethora of different awards, from bravery to campaigns to things such as good conduct and a good attendance record. 

Many police departments also started to copy the trends in the military. The oldest of the LAPD awards was, of course, the Medal of Valor (MOV). Over the years other medals and ribbons have been added, not only for various degrees of bravery but also for special accomplishments by individuals and specific units. The 1984 Olympics was the first time a ribbon was offered for special events, and that has continued down to recent history with the 150th Department Anniversary ribbon and the COVID service ribbon. It was nice to see the LAPD finally come around and start to offer the Purple Heart Medal, which at one time was considered controversial. But the LAPD has come a long way when it comes to commendations. 

The LAPD Manual encourages employees to wear their Department ribbons or medals on their uniforms, and on special occasions they may wear ribbons or medals earned while serving in the military. Military ribbons would take precedence over Department ribbons when worn together. This brings up an interesting conversation. With the addition of newer awards and about 28 various ribbons to wear, how do you properly wear them on your uniform? There are a few things to consider here. These ribbons should be considered an honor to wear. They represent recognition for your hard work and dedication to duty. There is a definite order of precedence, or a pecking order, so to speak. The ribbons should never be displayed in a haphazard precedence. They should be sharply displayed in a dignified manner. They make ribbon racks that can be bought to match the quantity of ribbons that you have. This way, they are lined up and don’t take on the appearance of a mishmash of various ribbons just stuck on the uniform at random. Currently, ribbons are worn in rows that are three ribbons wide, but we are also approved to wear rows that are four ribbons wide. After 10 ribbons, they suggest four across per row, although be advised that rack length can be hard to find. The badge may also be moved upward when adding additional rows of ribbons to provide proper spacing. 

It is a little embarrassing to note that many on the Department, including ranking officers, do not take the time to properly organize their awards on the uniform. A person of rank really has the obligation to set a fine example for the troops and display their ribbons with respect. If they don’t know how to set them up, they should ask for help. Looking at many of the photos of formal LAPD events, it is obvious that we need a little assistance to get our act together with respect to awards. People notice, even if we don’t. I have received messages and notes on poor ribbon etiquette from many officers over the years. Many will tell you that it is a matter of pride, in both your own service and the Department as a whole. A few common errors seen on the wearing of ribbons are as follows: improper order of precedence, wearing the same ribbon twice instead of an oak leaf and uneven rows instead of using a ribbon rack. This is the current precedence, from the LAPD Manual (Volume 3, Section 637):

  1. Medal of Valor
  2. Preservation of Life Medal
  3. Police Distinguished Service Medal
  4. Police Commission Unit Citation
  5. Police Medal
  6. Purple Heart
  7. Police Meritorious Service Medal
  8. Police Meritorious Achievement Medal
  9. Police Meritorious Unit Citation
  10. Police Star
  11. Lifesaving Medal
  12. Police Commission Distinguished
    Service Medal
  13. Community Policing Medal
  14. Human Relations Medal
  15. Reserve Exceptional Service Ribbon1
  16. Commendation Ribbon
  17. Patrol Service Ribbon
  18. Detective Service Ribbon
  19. Reserve Officer Service Ribbon
  20. Event ribbons (oldest first, starting with
    ’84 Olympics and descending to newest)
  21. Patrol Rifle Cadre
  22. Shotgun Slug Ammo Cadre


Many times, wearing all the ribbons looks like too much bling on the daily uniform and officers will drop the lesser ones off. This is the same rack, but with the event ribbons removed.

Did you know the following facts about the ribbons and medals of the LAPD?

After the North Hollywood bank shootout, officers involved were awarded the Police Meritorious Service Medal if they didn’t receive a different honor, in particular, the Medal of Valor. It was the first time that this Meritorious Medal was used for an event such as this.

The Liberty Award is only for K-9 dogs that have been killed or seriously injured in the line of duty. It is named after a Metropolitan K-9 who was shot and killed in the line of duty and has only been awarded once.

When both the Reserve Exceptional Service Ribbon and the COVID-19 Event Ribbon were approved, funding was not provided. The Reserve Foundation Board voted to pay for the Reserve Exceptional Service Ribbons, and they are now presented to Reserve Officers of the Year at the Gala. There has been no word on the availability of the COVID Ribbons, but a few do exist.

The Police Commission Integrity Medal had been pulled and is now defunct. The medal was developed after the Rampart scandal, and it was hoped that it would encourage officers to report wrongdoing on the Department in order to keep corruption out of the ranks. They even used the Medal of Valor design, except they changed the word “Valor” to “Veritas” (Truth). The problem was that to qualify, the information provided by the recipient had to result in fellow employees being brought to justice. It quickly became known as the “Rat Ribbon” and nobody wanted it. This author’s understanding is that it was actually awarded a few times, but officers did not want to accept it. Because of its unpopularity, the medal was removed. Of note, you can still find them on eBay, falsely promoted as an early-model Medal of Valor.

The Reserve Service Ribbon is awarded after 4,000 hours of service. If you worked the minimum number of shifts for 13 DPs a year for 20 years, you would qualify for the ribbon. Many reserves work far more than that. Originally, they added an oak leaf for each additional 2,000 hours worked, but that added device has apparently been discontinued, possibly due to accounting difficulties.

The ’92 Civil Disturbance Ribbon was criticized because of its blue/gray color scheme. The critics felt it was a reference to the Civil War. The controversy eventually faded away.

I hope that this article was of interest, and perhaps encourages you to think about awards that you are eligible to wear and motivates you to put together a rack. Be proud of your service and keep your legacy alive. Questions or comments can be sent to R1174@LAPD.Online. 

1 Suggested position. The Reserve Exceptional Service Ribbon is new; see Reserve Exceptional Service Ribbon Reminder for more details.