Thin blue line

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The "Thin Blue Line" symbol

The Thin Blue Line is a phrase and symbol used by law enforcement. The phrase refers figuratively to the position of law enforcement in society as a bulwark between order and anarchy. The symbol depicts a thin blue line, representing law enforcement, against a black background, and is commonly used to express solidarity with police, to commemorate policemen who have died in the line of duty, and to symbolize the relationship of law enforcement with the community as the protectors of the community from criminals and victimization.[1]

The term began as an allusion to the famous Thin Red Line. The symbol's origins are not certain, but it is now prevalent in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Finland, Belgium,[2] Switzerland[3], and Poland.[4]

History[edit]

The term is derived from the Thin Red Line, a formation of the 93rd Highland Regiment of Foot of the British Army at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, in which the Highlanders stood their ground against a Russian cavalry charge. This action was widely publicized by the press and became one of the most famous of the Crimean War.

The first known use of the phrase "thin blue line" is from a 1911 poem by Nels Dickmann Anderson, titled "The Thin Blue Line." In the poem, the phrase is used to refer to the United States Army, alluding to the Thin Red Line, and to the fact that US Army soldiers wore blue uniforms from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century.[5] [6]

It is unknown when the term was first used to refer to police. In the 1950's, LAPD Chief Bill Parker used the phrase in the department-produced television show of the same name.[7] Parker coined the term thin blue line to further reinforce the role of the LAPD. As Parker explained, the thin blue line, representing the LAPD, was the barrier between law and order and social and civil anarchy.[8] The phrase is also documented in a 1965 pamphlet by the Massachusetts government, referring to its state police force, and in even earlier police reports of the NYPD. By the early 1970's, the term had spread to police departments across the United States.[6]

Use of the term became especially widespread following the release of Errol Morris' 1988 documentary film The Thin Blue Line, about the murder of a Dallas Police officer Robert W Wood.[6] Judge Don Metcalfe, who presided over the trial of Randall Adams, states in the film that prosecutor "Doug Mulder's final argument was one I'd never heard before: about the 'thin blue line' of police that separate the public from anarchy." The judge admitted to being deeply moved by the prosecutor's words, though the trial resulted in a wrongful conviction and death sentence.[9]

Symbolism[edit]

Union Jack variation of Thin Blue Line emblem
Black and white American flag with Thin Blue Line.

The symbol is simply a thin blue line upon a black background. The blue line is intended to represent law enforcement. The entire emblem is intended to represent the police as a thin blue line that stands between anarchy and law and order, and is primarily used as a mark of respect for fallen policemen.

Proponents say that the idea behind the graphic is that law enforcement is a Thin Blue Line that stands between chaos and order or between criminals and the potential victims of crime, and it is primarily used to show solidarity with police.[10] Opponents note that the representations of the public and the criminals as black bars on either side of the blue line are identical, and suggest that the symbology ironically represents a police vs. everyone else mindset.[11]


Variations[edit]

Variations on the emblem have been made, including a horizontal thin blue line across a Union Jack rendered in black and white in the United Kingdom, or on a black and white American flag in the United States. The sale of badges with these emblems has been used to raise money for families of police officers that have died in the line of duty.

Due to the popularity of the Thin Blue Line emblem for law enforcement, other various groups have derived their own "thin line" terms and emblems to represent themselves. Most notably, in the United States, the term The Thin Red Line has been adopted by firefighters as an analogy to the Thin Blue Line, despite the phrase originally referring to the British Army.[12]

Controversy[edit]

A blue laser beam was projected during the 24th annual National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial on 13 May 2012 in Washington, D.C.

The Thin Blue Line emblem has been controversial in both the US and the UK.

  • In 2015, police officers in Sussex, England were told by their superiors to remove the badge from their uniforms since it was not part of their official uniform. There was a concern that it could be seen as a political statement related to cutbacks in police forces.[13][14]
  • In Chicago, in November 2016, counterprotesters carried the black and white US flag variant of the symbol to show support for police after a police shooting of a black man. The counterprotesters carried the symbol in confrontations with another group of protesters who felt the shooting was unjust and racially motivated.[15]
  • The black and white US version of the flag with the Thin Blue Line has been seen by some as a desecration of the official US flag.[1]
  • In Warwick, New York, the painting of a blue line down a roadway was protested by some citizens as being in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement. The town has since painted the line red white and blue, the colors of the US flag.[16]

References[edit]