Thin blue line
The "thin blue line" is a term that typically refers to the concept of the police as the line which keeps society from descending into violent chaos. The "blue" in "thin blue line" refers to the blue color of the uniforms of many police departments.
The phrase originated as an allusion to the British infantry regiment The Thin Red Line during the Crimean War in 1854, wherein the regiment of Scottish Highlanders — wearing red uniforms — famously held off a Russian cavalry charge. Its use referring specifically to the police was popularized by Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Parker during the 1950s; author and police officer Joseph Wambaugh in the 1970s, by which time "thin blue line" was used across the United States; and Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988).
Since the late 1970s, the term has also been used in tandem (e.g. "crossing the thin blue line") with the concept of the "blue wall of silence", an informal code among police officers used to cover up police misconduct.
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 Scottish Highlanders stood their ground against a Russian cavalry charge. This action was widely publicized by the press and recreated in artwork, becoming one of the most famous battles of the Crimean War. The name is now used for firefighters today.
An early 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 both to the Thin Red Line and to the fact that US Army soldiers wore blue uniforms from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century.
It is unknown when the term was first used to refer to police. New York police commissioner Richard Enright used the phrase in 1922. In the 1950s, Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Parker often used the term in speeches, and he also lent the phrase to the department-produced television show The Thin Blue Line. Parker used 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.
The Oxford English Dictionary records its use in 1962 by The Sunday Times referring to police presence at an anti-nuclear demonstration. 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 1970s, the term had spread to police departments across the United States. Author and police officer Joseph Wambaugh helped to further popularize the phrase with his police novels throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
The term was used for the title of Errol Morris's 1988 documentary film The Thin Blue Line about the murder of the Dallas Police officer Robert W. Wood. 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.
"Blue wall of silence" overlap
Colloquially in the United States, "thin blue line" also refers to an unwritten code of silence used to cover up police misconduct, also known as the blue wall of silence. This code is an expectation that police officers will not blow the whistle on other officers who commit unlawful arrest, falsification of evidence, or other crimes against citizens, and that officers will not speak to outsiders about hazing and harassment within the police force itself. It has been used in this way since at least 1978.
Symbols and variations
The "Thin Blue Line" flag is all black, bearing a single horizontal blue stripe across its center. Variations of the flag, often using various national flags rendered in black and white with a blue line through the center, are seen below. The "Blue Lives Matter" movement was created in December 2014, after the homicides of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn, New York.
The Punisher skull emblem has become popular within the Blue Lives Matter movement, with many companies producing decals, stickers, and T-shirts featuring the Punisher emblem colored with or alongside the thin blue line. The creator of the Punisher, Gerry Conway, has criticized this usage, saying that police who use the symbol "are embracing an outlaw mentality" and "it's as offensive as putting a Confederate flag on a government building". Conway has also responded by trying to "reclaim the logo" by selling t-shirts adorned with the Punisher logo and Black Lives Matter, with sales going directly to Black Lives Matter-related charities.
Appearances and controversy
- In 2015, police officers in Sussex, England were told by their supervisors to remove a badge from their uniforms with a blue line across a union jack 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.
- In Chicago, in November 2016, counterprotesters carried the black and white US flag symbol to show support for police after a police shooting of Joshua Beal in opposition to another group of protesters who felt the shooting was unjust and racially motivated.
- 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.
- In Riviera Beach, Florida, a group of police officers flew the thin blue line flags on their personal vehicles. They were ordered by their captain to remove the flags.
- During the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the thin blue line flag was flown alongside the Confederate battle flag by white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrators.
- In 2017, Multnomah County Courthouse removed the flag after it gained notoriety with the Charlottesville white supremacists.
- In July 2019, the "Thin Blue Line" American Flag was put up by residents of York, Maine, as a way to pay tribute to a local police officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty decades ago. Due to locals being concerned that the flag was being used as a symbol of white supremacy, the flag was subsequently taken down.
- In May 2020, officers of the SFPD were forbidden from wearing face masks (for disease protection against COVID-19) with "Thin Blue Line" symbols on the job. The SFPD chief of police, Bill Scott, stated that this decision was made "in consideration of concerns some community members have expressed that 'thin blue line' symbolism on some of our officers' face masks may be perceived as divisive or disrespectful".
- On May 31, 2020, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department in Cincinnati, Ohio flew the blue line flag in place of the American flag in response to the George Floyd protests. The department tweeted that the original flag had been stolen and the blue line flag flown as a replacement in honor of the Cincinnati Police Department officer shot during the unrest.
- On June 1, 2020, the Middletown, Connecticut Police Chief, William McKenna, made a joint statement along with the mayor of the city, Ben Florsheim, stating that they would be removing the flag from public view at the Middletown Police Department. A change.org petition that garnered over 1,300 signatures for the flags to be removed in wake of the killing of George Floyd influenced the city to make the choice.
- On July 30, 2020, Blue Lives Matter flags were removed from Hingham, Massachusetts fire trucks after days of controversy over whether the flags simply salute police officers or have a more divisive political message. Some townspeople had confused the flag with the genuine "Thin Blue Line" flag. 
Critics suggest that the "thin blue line" symbolism represents an "us versus them" mindset that heightens tensions between officers and citizens and negatively influences police-community interactions, by setting police apart from society at large.
- Blue wall of silence
- The Thin Blue Lie, a television film about police brutality in Philadelphia under the mayorship of Frank Rizzo
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