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What does the thin blue line flag mean?

While officers and law enforcement supporters have embraced the image as a source of pride, others see the blue line flag as a banner of defiance

Thin blue line flag behind President Trump

With a “Thin Blue Line” flag in the background, President Donald Trump arrives to speak to a campaign rally on Oct. 16, 2020, in Macon, Ga.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

What started as a phrase, became popularized as a graphic image, then unfurled as a thin blue line flag, has been around for a long time.

The thin blue line is seen on police cars, lapel pins, coffee cups and COVID-19 masks. Only recently has the thin blue line flag sparked controversy.

While police officers and supporters of law enforcement have embraced the image as a source of pride and fraternal kinship, others see the thin blue line flag as a banner of defiance in a time of demands for police reform.

1. What does the thin blue line mean?

The most reliable account of the origin of the thin blue line is the story of the thin red line. A red-coated Scottish regiment of the British Army during the Crimean War heroically stood, outnumbered, against repeated Russian attacks. This effort of the 1854 battle, most notably associated with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” was described by the British press as the thin red line. The idea of a line of brave defenders standing between peace and chaos was borrowed by law enforcement whose typically blue uniforms were testimony to true blue loyalty and steadfastness.

2. What is the thin blue line flag?

The addition of the blue line symbolism to a flag is claimed by Thin Blue Line USA, a company created in 2014 by then-college student Andrew Jacob to show support for law enforcement. The thin blue line flag features a black and white image of the American flag with the horizontal stripe beneath the field of white stars on the black background. The stars represent the citizenry who stand for justice and order. The darkness represents chaos and anarchy, and according to some, a memorial to the deaths of those law officers who have perished in the line of duty.

Thin Blue Line Flag

The thin blue line flag may be displayed alone or sharing a staff with the American flag.

3. Where is the thin blue line flag flown or displayed?

The thin blue line flag may be displayed alone or sharing a staff with the American flag, which must always remain preeminent. The thin blue line flag is entirely consistent with the ideals of freedom and justice. It carries no special code and is often adapted to clothing design and other items for display.

4. Can civilians fly the thin blue line flag to show their support for police?

The thin blue line flag represents the ideals of justice and freedom, bravery and solidarity. Although it has great meaning for the fraternal feelings of police officers for others in the profession, it is not reserved for use only by police officers.

As symbolized by the field of stars, citizens are integral to the message of the flag. Those who want to express their support for police officers and their partnership in the mission of law and order should feel free to fly the thin blue line flag.

Sadly, the thin blue line has been falsely identified with police misconduct and racism. Those who display blue line symbolism by flag or decal have faced verbal abuse and vandalism. Some Homeowners Associations have opposed the flags, and even some police agencies have removed the image from their patrol cars, station houses and uniforms.

But Jacob, the flag’s creator, argues that such opposition is wholly misplaced. “The flag has no association with racism, hatred, bigotry,” he said. “It’s a flag to show support for law enforcement—no politics involved.”

5. Where can I get a thin blue line flag?

Thin blue line flags and other products are widely available online in addition to the Thin Blue Line USA site. Many products are trademarked or otherwise protected even though they are widely copied.

Flags and symbols have been part of families, trades, soldiers and nations since before recorded history. Other first responders have adopted colors and emblems. The Maltese cross of firefighting and the star of life for EMS are examples. For police officers, accoutrements of their profession are the badge and the uniform, with the thin blue line emblems being a recent addition that can be shared by every citizen who treasures the thin line between peace and chaos.

Next: 3 things to consider before you raise a thin blue line flag

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. 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 degree 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. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.