Police symbols: Why what police wear matters
The thin blue line is an important symbol honoring our profession and fallen officers, but are symbolic displays appropriate from the police?
By John C. Murray
American law enforcement agencies use flags, badges, shoulder patches and other emblems to display their municipal, state, or federal affiliations. Often, police badges or shoulder patches incorporate elements of their local city or government seal. Police emblems serve not only for identification purposes but also to display the policing organization’s social and legal authority. 
These symbols convey an unspoken message of civil authority and what it means to those who might resist: a Hobbesian monopoly on the enforcement of laws, and when necessary, the use of force.  Police leaders must consider what unintended messages may be delivered to the community by police symbols, emblems and symbolic actions, or the temporary replacement or alteration of such symbols.
Policing, and what the police represent, can serve to welcome some within the community and disaffect others. Police symbols are polysemic in nature and may have multiple interpretations within diverse communities. The police by their very presence are the visible manifestation of government and may be regarded differently by disparate elements of the community. 
Graham Ellison and Jim Smyth, authors of "The Crowned Harp," wrote on the challenges of policing disaffected communities, and stressed that “while policing can promote feelings of belonging and security for some, it can also deny recognition to others, not just at the level of day-to-day policing practices, but also symbolically at the level of culture, and emotionally at the level of ‘belonging’ to a particular group.” 
Many in law enforcement feel the thin blue line, for example, is an important symbol honoring our profession and fallen officers but is it appropriate to be displayed on a police uniform? The police display support for a variety of social causes; however, does it matter that others may have divergent views and interpretations of changes to police symbols, emblems and uniforms?
The use, display, or alteration of patches, flags, or symbols in policing can be impactful. A thin blue line flag, for example, a symbol of police support for many, can have negative connotations for others in the community. Just last month a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer in Saskatchewan, Canada, was filmed by the media wearing a thin blue line patch on his uniform hat. “The ‘thin blue line’ is not a symbol the RCMP can endorse for official use and can be hurtful to segments of our community, conveying an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” a Saskatchewan RCMP official said in a statement.  However, the RMCP, and many American police organizations, are inconsistent in their determination of what symbols may be divisive. A simple internet search will reveal photographs of uniform RCMP and American officers, wearing patches, displaying flags and endorsing clear socio-political causes in uniform. Such displays, regardless of the type, may unintendedly promote one group at the expense of the other. 
The police have embraced many good causes, and are right to do so; however, we must use care not to find ourselves taking sides in socio-political or ideological movements. Eventually, these causes will drift toward the politicization of the police and may promote a sense of belonging to some in the community, while disaffecting others. The police need to belong to everyone in the community. We cannot pick and choose sides. Our police must remain apolitical.
1. Goodsell CT. (1977). Bureaucratic manipulation of physical symbols: An empirical study. American Journal of Political Science, 21(1):80.
3. Young M. Dressed to commune, dressed to kill: Changing police Imagery in England and Wales. Appearance and Power. Bloomsbury Academic, 1999.
4. Ellison G, Smyth J. The Crowned Harp: Policing Northern Ireland, Pluto Press, June 1, 2000; Honneth A. The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.
5. Djuric M. Mountie wears ‘thin blue line’ patch while escorting man convicted of hate crime. The Globe and Mail, October 27, 2022.
6. Ellison G, Smyth J. The Crowned Harp: Policing Northern Ireland, Pluto Press, June 1, 2000.
About the author
John C. Murray is a police commander with over 26 years of law enforcement experience at a municipal police department in Monterey County, California. In his career, he has served in the gang unit, narcotics unit, and as investigations commander, SWAT team leader and SWAT commander. He has instructed as an FTO, RTO, officer safety instructor, and firearms instructor.
John is currently attending the FBI National Academy, Class 284, and is a 2022 graduate of the PERF Senior Management Institute for Policing. He has a BA in Management from St. Mary’s College of California and an MA in Homeland Security from the Naval Postgraduate School.