The thin blue line problem

The controversial version of the U.S. flag has been criticized as a symbol of white supremacy that fuels greater divide in the city at a time when police-community relations are already fraught

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
The thin blue line flag has become an increasingly divisive symbol

Soon after Columbus police shot and killed Black teenager Ma’Khia Bryant, a video from the scene went viral. In the short clip, an officer appeared to shout “blue lives matter” while responding to a crowd that had gathered nearby, which is how several national news outlets reported on events.

But in emails obtained by Alive via a public records request, Lt. Tim Myers wrote that these news reports appeared to be inaccurate. After reviewing available body camera footage, which he compared with the viral video recorded via Facebook Live, it appeared to Myers that the “blue lives matter” call had actually come from one of the gathered bystanders, who was agitated by the presence of a police officer wearing a neck gaiter emblazoned with the thin blue line flag, an image that consists of a black-and-white American flag with a single blue stripe. (Alive spoke with a neighborhood resident who preferred to remain anonymous but was on the scene at the time and confirmed the police version of events.)

While it's likely an officer within the Columbus Division of Police did not engage in the behaviors that have been reported in this instance, the exchange still highlights the tensions that can be created by the presence of the thin blue line flag, an increasingly divisive symbol that in recent years has been spotted on decals placed on CPD cruisers, on flags hung in the windows of Columbus police substations and printed on the neck gaiters worn by officers called to work tense local crime scenes. A CPD substation in Grandview also displayed a “blue lives matter” sign in the window as recently as this month, and on May 6, a social media post made by Attorney General Dave Yost featured the image of the thin blue line flag.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for almost 30 years, and, I’ll be honest with you, I initially thought it was a good thing to have a flag that was supposed to represent support for [the profession],” said Anthony Wilson, a former CPD sergeant and Westerville assistant chief of police who currently serves as the director of diversity, security and inclusion for the Columbus Metropolitan Library. “But then I saw that flag flying in Charlottesville [during the 2017 Unite the Right rally]. … And I watched the insurrection [on Jan. 6] and I saw people carry that flag up the steps of the Capitol. And that’s when I realized it no longer represented what I believed it to represent.”

The phrase “the thin blue line” can be traced all the way back to an 1854 British battle formation, with redcoats forming a “thin red line” during a battle of the Crimean War, the Marshall Project reported last year. But the modern iteration of the thin blue line flag, which has been hoisted alongside the Confederate flag in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Washington D.C., surfaced in 2014 when college student Andrew Jacobs started Thin Blue Line USA after watching on TV as people protested the police killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown. The company is now one of the largest online retailers dedicated solely to selling pro-police merchandise, its business growing alongside the political rise of Donald Trump, who described police as “the force between civilization and total chaos.”

“We cannot minimize the intent behind the flag. … It’s very clear that its [increased visibility] is in response to the social justice movement that is happening in America,” said Columbus attorney Sean Walton, who has represented the families of multiple citizens shot and killed by police, including Casey Goodson, and who also heads up the newly founded Police Accountability Project. “I was at a rally recently, and at the end of the rally there was a pickup truck that drove past, and the pickup had a thin blue line flag extended from [the cab], and the way it drove past was very intentional. Even at rallies and protests, what you see is that flag being waved as if they are preparing for battle against this social justice movement.”

Chenelle Jones, an assistant dean at Franklin University, said the flag’s presence in Charlottesville and during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, in addition to the way counter-protesters have displayed it during Black lives matter rallies, has linked the flag with “representations of white supremacy,” making its presence damaging to police-community relations.

“Law enforcement agencies should be building trust. They should be building community with the people they serve,” Jones said. “They should probably not be throwing around propaganda that, to a lot of communities and a lot of people, represents white supremacy, white dominance and anything that is against Black lives matter. That thin blue line is a representation of an us-versusthem mentality, and it feeds and fuels the disconnect that police officers far too often have with the communities that they are supposed to be protecting and serving.”

As a result, the flag has been banned within Maryland district courts, in school districts and by at least one police department — the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose chief, Kristen Roman, informed officers of the ban in an internal email sent on Jan. 15.

“We, like many departments, have been engaged in communications more urgently, I think, and in earnest, since the murder of George Floyd this past summer,” said Roman, who started to reconsider the thin blue line flag after her department posted a photo to social media in the fall of 2020 in which the symbol could be seen displayed on the wall of the briefing room, its presence generating questions and concerns from members of the community. “And that was really the catalyst for us to start having those internal conversations. We put the question out to our officers: What does this symbol mean to you? And what do you think it means to members of our community, and particularly to our communities of color?”

Roman said the responses varied wildly, with some officers saying that the flag represented a tribute to those who had been killed in the line of duty, while others viewed it as representing the divide between order and chaos. Still others described the flag as deeply problematic, a symbol that divided the officers from the community they are intended to serve.

“But, at the end of the day, what that image means to me or my department, that’s not what matters most, because we’re public servants,” said Roman, noting that her decision to ban the flag was given extra urgency by the sense of horror she experienced watching as rioters at the Capitol hoisted it outside of the U.S. Capitol during the January insurrection. “Anything that creates a barrier between us and our community, that may deter members of our community from turning to us for assistance, or from providing us with information that could help keep the community safer, that’s really what is behind a decision like this. When a symbol like this can and does evoke fear and mistrust from members of our community, we need to respond to that. … Especially in a time like now, with what we’ve seen over the last year. Anything that could potentially create a barrier between police and the community is not something we want to put out there.”

In Columbus, embrace of the thin blue line flag by CPD led local attorney Nick Pasquarello to register a complaint with the department in October 2020 after he photographed the flag on display in the window at the substation located at 950 E. Main St. Though Pasquarello, who also worked as a legal observer during last summer’s Black lives matter protests, said he directed his complaint at all instances in which CPD officers displayed the thin blue line flag, when he received a letter earlier this month rendering judgment, it addressed only the flag in the window at the substation in dismissing his claim.

Replying to an interview request from Alive to discuss how CPD views the thin blue line flag, spokesman James Fuqua wrote, “I’m not sure we would be able to comment on a theoretical symbol,” adding, “There is no specific department stance on it.” Asked if not having a specific department stance on the symbol could be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of the flag, since it continues to be displayed by CPD officers, Fuqua wrote, “I must state again that we cannot comment on something that is theory based with no factual background to support it.” Fuqua did not respond to a third email sent in follow-up.

“At some point, there has to be some messaging out that bridges the gap between the police and the community, and the silence [from CPD] on it is worse than saying almost anything at all, whether you say you agree with [critics of the flag], or you say, ‘We’re going to fly this no matter what,’” said Anthony Wilson, who added that he continues to honor law enforcement by lighting his front porch with a blue bulb even as he refuses to fly the thin blue line flag. “I’m going to keep saying this, but you have to find ways to bring people together, because that’s the only way police are going to be truly successful, is to be in real partnership with the community. And the only way you’re going to see a reduction in crime is for the community to be in real partnership with police. So when you have a symbol that has become so divisive, that creates such a gulf, a divide in the community, my hope is the Powers That Be see that and say, ‘Hey, is this something we maybe need to rethink?’”

More recently, the symbol has even spread outside of CPD, with Attorney General Yost making a social media post featuring a photo of the thin blue line flag, which drew a range of critical responses on both Twitter and Facebook. “This flag is not some Rorschach test upon which every person gets to project some imagined meaning,” Yost said in an emailed statement to Alive in which he described the flag as one that “honors those who have died in the line of duty on behalf of the community.” “I embrace both the voices that honor police and those who call for accountability and racial justice — and I reject those who draw their identity from further dividing us.”

“What [Yost’s social media post] shows is just how embedded systemic racism is, because that’s really what we’re talking about,” said attorney Sean Walton. “What we’re talking about is a movement for racial justice, and a movement to put an end to constitutional violations that seem to occur disproportionately against communities of color. And so in pushing for a movement toward simple rights, toward fairness and equity, we again have public officials, elected officials and people who represent systems of government speaking out in opposition to justice. … It shows how intertwined these systems are, and how much of an uphill battle social justice is going to be.”

Both Walton and Jones acknowledged that barring CPD officers from publicly displaying the thin blue line flag wouldn’t solve the larger issues with policing, but both positioned it as an important step in beginning efforts to improve police-community relations.

“Banning the thin blue line flag is low-hanging fruit,” said Jones, who would also like to see CPD address its use-of-force policies, along with providing officers additional training on de-escalation without lethal use of force. “Banning the flag is not going to repair all of the issues in the Columbus Division of Police. It’s not going to completely repair trust, or enhance respect. But what it could do is remove a barrier to engaging in the community. Because people see that flag and they will pause. And it can deter them from even wanting to interact with the police.”

Along with dropping the thin blue line flag, Walton said he would like to see police departments begin to challenge and eradicate the mindset that has helped give rise to the symbol, one in which police view themselves as engaged in a perpetual battle against a community of which they should be a part.

“But they’re making it clear they’re not a part of the community, that they are their own separate entity. And you have to change that culture. You have to change that us-against-them mentality,” said Walton, who saw this mindset on view during the Black lives matter protests that unfolded in the city last summer, where police responded to protesters with such force that a federal judge recently described officers as having “run amok” in a decision restricting future police use of force against peaceful demonstrators. “And part of doing that is making commitments like banning the thin blue line imagery. But then it’s also really challenging that culture and digging into it, because we're not going to get the change that we seek unless officers understand that it's not us against them. We're all in this together.”