An informal code among police officers used to cover up police misconduct
The “thin blue line” is a term that typically refers to the concept of the police as the line which keeps society from descending into violent chaos. The “blue” in “thin blue line” refers to the blue color of the uniforms of many police departments.
The phrase originated as an allusion to the British infantry regiment The Thin Red Line during the Crimean War in 1854, wherein the regiment of Scottish Highlanders wearing red uniforms famously held off a Russian cavalry charge. Its use referring specifically to the police was popularized by Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Parker during the 1950s; author and police officer Joseph Wambaugh in the 1970s, by which time “thin blue line” was used across the United States; and Errol Morris‘s documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988).
Desecration of the flag of the United States; penalties. Whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.
The Short, Fraught History of the ‘Thin Blue Line’ American Flag
The controversial version of the U.S. flag has been hailed as a sign of police solidarity and criticized as a symbol of white supremacy.
Since the late 1970s, the term has also been used in tandem (e.g. “crossing the thin blue line”) with the concept of the “blue wall of silence“, an informal code among police officers used to cover up police misconduct.
As protests over policing continue to convulse cities throughout the U.S., one symbol keeps showing up: a black-and-white American flag with one blue stripe.
Recently, the flag was flown from the back of a car alongside protests in South Dakota, and burned outside the Utah State Capitol. When deputies hoisted the flag outside government buildings in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Orange, California, the sheriffs in both communities were sharply criticized. Officers have worn versions of the flag on face masks while clashing with protesters in Baltimore and in Washington, D.C.
Those who fly the flag have said it stands for solidarity and professional pride within a dangerous, difficult profession and a solemn tribute to fallen police officers. But it has also been flown by white supremacists, appearing next to Confederate flags at the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. County officials in Oregon recently paid $100,000 to a black employee of a law enforcement agency there, after she said she was harassed by coworkers for complaining about her colleagues displaying the flag at work.
Now, as police again become the focal point of a fight for racial equality in the U.S., the flag has returned to both mirror and amplify divisions.
But how did this flag come to be so pervasive? And what does it really stand for?
In 2014, a white college student named Andrew Jacob was watching protests of police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. He had seen the image of the flag on patches and stickers, he told The Marshall Project, but not an actual flag. While in high school in West Bloomfield, Michigan, he had attended a memorial service for a police officer who had been killed on the job.
Now, Jacob is the president of Thin Blue Line USA, one of the largest online retailers devoted exclusively to sales of pro-police flags, T-shirts, neckwear and jewelry. “The flag has no association with racism, hatred, bigotry,” he said. “It’s a flag to show support for law enforcement—no politics involved.” The company officially disavowed its use in Charlottesville.
Jacob said the flag was not a direct reaction to the first Black Lives Matter protests—an idea suggested by a previous origin story in Harper’s—but he allows he may have first seen the thin blue line image after those protests spurred the circulation of pro-police imagery online. “That’s maybe why it came to my eyes,” he said.
As Jacob built the company, a “Blue Lives Matter” movement was growing in the wake of news stories of multiple officers shot to death in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Brooklyn, New York; and Dallas. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, called police “the force between civilization and total chaos.” Some states began passing laws to categorize physical attacks on law enforcement officers as hate crimes.
Police were not actually in greater danger than they had been before the Black Lives Matter movement. Ambush killings of police have actually declined more than 90 percent since 1970, even with the recent spikes, according to a study by Michael White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University. White understands how the thin blue line flag has become a part of police culture, and that officers may view it as a sign of solidarity, but also worries about the message it sends to the public.
“It fosters this ‘us versus them’ mentality,” he said. “The police and community should work together, in order to produce safety. Each should respect the role of the other. If you’re looking at the community as a potential enemy, or a threat, that’s certainly going to hinder any positive relationship.” Full Story
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