State your case: Should the thin blue line flag be banned from police departments?

Following community criticism, two police chiefs recently announced they would be removing thin blue line imagery from display in their agencies


In this State Your Case, columnists debate the question: Should the thin blue line flag be banned from display in police departments?  

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

The issue: In November 2020, the UW-Madison Police Department (UWPD) posted a photo on social media that showed a thin blue line flag displayed in the department’s office.

The post was met with criticism from students, leading to Police Chief Kristen Roman condemning the “use of the flag when it was ‘intended to defend hate’ or ‘invalidate social justice movements advocating for meaningful police reform,’” but also defending the flag in some contexts.

While Chief Roman did not commit to removing the flag at that time, in an email to UW-Madison Police staff this past week, Roman said the flag has been "co-opted" by extremists with "hateful ideologies" and she was banning officers from using thin blue line imagery while acting in an official police capacity:

I’m certain we can all agree that the actions and hateful ideologies of extremists who have so visibly co-opted the thin blue line flag in the promotion of their views not only threaten our democracy, our communities, and justice in all forms, they run counter to UWPD’s core values and significantly impede our efforts to build trust. This, in turn, places officers at greater risk physically and emotionally. 

Guided by our core values, my responsibility to ensure your safety as best I’m able, and by what I believe in my heart is the right thing to do under present circumstances, I am moved to enact specific measures to distance UWPD from the thin blue line imagery and the fear and mistrust that it currently evokes for too many in our community. I understand the complexity and sensitivity of this issue. 

I understand that this decision may cause emotional responses, even anger from some. I, too, feel hurt and disappointed as we confront our current reality. I know this is hard. I know this issue is complicated. I also know that a symbol is not what holds us together or makes us a team. Rather, it is our shared commitment to service and to first and foremost doing what’s best for our community." 

Writing in response to Chief Roman's decision, Dodge County (Wisconsin) Sheriff Dale J Schmidt said the ban sends the wrong message to citizens and law enforcement: "The 'Thin Blue Line' flag has been a symbol of support for law enforcement by a very large number of United States citizens. Those who display it typically support law and order. They support waiting for all facts before casting judgment on any incident. They support law enforcement officers knowing that the vast majority are good people who genuinely want to make their community a better place."

 

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Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the Santa Rosa (California) Police Department came under criticism for a Facebook post showing two officers holding a thin blue line banner that had been donated by community members to thank officers for their service.

In a message on the department’s Facebook page, Santa Rosa Police Chief Rainer Navarro said the post was deleted because of community outcry and the banner removed from the front hallway of the Santa Rosa police station.

 

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Did Chief Roman and Chief Navarro make the right decisions? Our columnists debate the issue.

Joel Shults: Red flags, white flags, pledging allegiance to the flag, it's a grand old flag, rally 'round the flag, flag on the play…flags mean something. Sometimes they mean rebellion, sometimes they mean loyalty and solidarity, sometimes they signal a specific meaning, and sometimes they are waved to get attention before a message is sent.

The thin blue line flag is not a flag of rebellion. Nor is it a flag of opposition. It simply means that we recognize the importance of our duly constituted and authorized law enforcement. That it has been pitched as divisive, belligerent, or oppositional is a sad misunderstanding.

Policing, like many other vocations, has traditions and fraternal aspects to it. So do firefighters, EMTs, physicians, priests and pipefitters There is nothing wrong and much good about that. The attack on the thin blue line imagery is about the antagonists' larger message of hostility toward law enforcement. I'm confident we could eliminate any vestige of the blue line and it would cure nothing. Ultimately, this does not mean that those of us who support law enforcement must fight to the death to retain this particular symbol. It does mean that the opportunity to educate our citizenry about the sentiment reflected in the thin blue line is open to us.

The suppression of the thin blue line emblem is every bit as much of an insult to good citizens who want quality law enforcement as it is to those who wear the badge. I think that is the most important element of the whole case.

Jim Dudley: I hear you, Joel, and although I agree with most of what you say, this is a debate. 

I see the latest controversy more about leadership and transparency. We live in different times these days, where some symbols cause reactions and emotions from people. We have seen state flags changed, statues toppled, and, in some cases, history being re-written.

As chief of an agency, there is the burden of being the lead peace officer and entrusted with keeping the peace. This often means not being able to make everyone happy. Chiefs must be considerate of several perspectives, including varying views of the community, and of course, of their own constituency: their own law enforcement workforce. In regard to transparency, they must be able to bring issues to light, acknowledge their standing and deal with them.

In the recent case in Santa Rosa, the chief heard from segments of the community in opposition of the thin blue line banner that had been donated by two community members and ordered its removal as not being an official emblem of his department. In doing so he angered his troops and the segment of the community who made and gifted the banner.

In order to be fair and effective, that policy must be equitable and balanced. Any counter-flag should be treated in the same vein. Hopefully, the chief brought stakeholders together before he determined his course of action in order for all to have a say in the matter and resolution.

Joel Shults: We may not be as far apart as the question implies. A stubborn clinging to the symbol in opposition to some constituency would be unwise, but so would an immediate concession to some fragment of the community or loudest voices in removing it. If a moment of unity could be constructed out of the controversy, that would be a great outcome.

Leaders have to be aware of the morale of their troops and take a stand on their behalf sometimes, even in the face of criticism. We may need to ask if there is hypocrisy in banning the thin blue line flag while putting up posters that may reflect groups with anti-police sentiments. Money is spent on painting cars pink for breast cancer awareness, and rainbow colors for LGBTQ advocacy. When SROs are being summarily dropped, and Shop with a Cop programs lose support, the over-arching issue isn't a particular set of shapes and colors on a flag or bumper sticker, but mutual understanding between the institution of law enforcement, the community, and the men and women who need support from each other, the community and their leadership.

Jim Dudley: Agreed, law enforcement in general and some supporters from the general public see the thin blue line flag as a representation and symbol showing support and standing between order and anarchy. Some segments of the population see it as a division between “us and them.” Others bristle at any suggestion that we are sheepdogs keeping the community from the wolves.  

Your position that the ban is crushing to law enforcement officers’ morale is a valid one. Still, the department leader must make unpopular decisions in order to keep any divide between police and the community from widening. 

Chiefs need to reach out to union leaders and rank and file leaders to explain the situation and try to build pragmatic consensus. The chief must stand up to the heat and bear the weight of the criticism. In the end, law enforcement officers will take the high road and keep their oath of keeping the peace and fulfilling their duty. Eventually, things will balance out. 

What policies should agencies have in place regarding the display of thin blue line imagery? Complete the short form below to share your thoughts then check out how fellow Police1 readers answered that question here.

NEXT: Read more "State your case" debates here.


About the authors

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served as an academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor's in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country.

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