‘Thin Blue Line’ Flags Inflame Police Critics in NYC

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U.S. flags marked with the “Thin Blue Line” symbol appeared outside several police stations in New York this week. Photo courtesy The Tipsters via Gothamist

The “Thin Blue Line” symbol, adopted by many police officers to counter what they feel is unjustified criticism of law enforcement, is sharpening the already-polarized debate about American policing.

The latest flare-up occurred in New York City this month, when U.S. flags containing the symbol appeared in police station houses in South Brooklyn and Harlem, provoking immediate calls from local residents to remove them, Gothamist reported.

“People in Harlem are very familiar with this particular police demonstration,”Alexandra Moffett-Bateau, a local resident and political science professor at John Jay College, told the Gothamist before the flags were removed.

“The NYPD (New York Police Department) can’t keep flying white supremacist symbols in black neighborhoods.”

The appearance of Thin Blue Line flags at police stations around the country has fueled a bitter debate over racism and free speech between law-and-order enthusiasts and community activists, and politicians have not been shy about getting involved in the arguments.

Earlier this month in Maryland, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said a thin blue line flag presented to a police station in Germantown, Md., would not be displayed because it was “divisive.” That immediately provoked a scathing response from Gov. Larry Hogan, who tweeted the decision was “outrageous and unconscionable.”

In jurisdictions from Washington, D.C. to Oregon, flying the Thin Blue Line flag on government property has triggered calls for municipal or state authorities to take the symbol down.

Law enforcement authorities have mostly stayed silent in reaction to the critics, but defenders insist the symbol is only a way to express solidarity with police besieged by charges that their aggressive tactics too often lead to lethal violence.

Attorney General William Barr stepped into the larger policing debate this week in a speech to police and prosecutors, warning that “lack of respect” for police officers could imperil communities’ access to law enforcement protection.

Barr did not spell out exactly what he meant, or whether it could affect federal funding for police services in some communities, but his comments immediately drew outrage from critics who said it threatened civil liberties and free speech.

Like other defensive reactions, such as the phrase “Blue Lives Matter,” the thin blue line symbol has emerged as a rallying point for many Americans angered by criticism of police, and who feel that they are being unfairly held responsible for the deeper shortcomings of the justice system.

And for some it’s proved a commercial bonanza.

One company—Thin Blue Line USA— markets thin blue line-branded items on its website,from T-shirts to bracelets and ties, promising to direct some of the profits to organizations helping families of “fallen police officers.”

The iconic symbol first gained popularity in response to the growing national support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which arose following the shooting of an unarmed civilian in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

But it has also been adopted by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It appeared, for example, during the controversial 2017 demonstration by White Supremacists and their supporters in Charlottesville, Va.

The association was condemned by Thin Blue Line USA.

“We reject, in the strongest possible terms, any association of our flag with racism, hatred, and bigotry,” the company said in a statement.

“To use it in such a way tarnishes what our nation [believes] in. The thin blue line flag stands for the sacrifice law enforcement officers of this nation make each day. We ask our nation to hold faith with those that defend the thin blue line.”

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