Thin blue line

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The blue line symbol

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.[1] 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;[2] and Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988).[3]

The "thin blue line" symbol has been used by the "Blue Lives Matter" movement, which emerged in 2014 as a rebuttal to the Black Lives Matter movement, and gained traction following the high-profile homicides of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn, New York.[4][5][6][7][8] The "thin blue line" has also been associated with white nationalists in the US, particularly after the Unite the Right rally in 2017,[9][10] who fly Thin Blue Line flags at their rallies.[11]


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.[2] 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.

In the book Lawtalk, James Clapp and Elizabeth Thornburg say the term spread to other professions, e.g., a "thin white line of bishops".[3][12]

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.[2][self-published source?][13]

It is unknown when the term was first used to refer to police. New York police commissioner Richard Enright used the phrase in 1922.[3] 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.[14] Parker used the term "thin blue line" to further reinforce the role of the LAPD.[1] As Parker explained, the thin blue line, representing the LAPD, was the barrier between law and order and social and civil anarchy.[15]

The Oxford English Dictionary records its use in 1962 by The Sunday Times referring to police presence at an anti-nuclear demonstration.[16] 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.[2] Author and police officer Joseph Wambaugh helped to further popularize the phrase with his police novels throughout the 1970s and 1980s.[3]

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.[2] 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.[17]

According to a 2018 law review article, "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,[18] a term dating back to 1978.[19]

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 in the wake of the homicides of Eric Garner and Michael Brown Jr earlier that year and in the context of the greater Black Lives Matter movement.[6][7][8]

The skull emblem of the Punisher comics character 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.[20][12] 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".[21] 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.[22]

The flag was banned by the LAPD from being displayed in public settings in January of 2023.

Variations representing professions other than law enforcement exist, such as the "thin red line" flag, representing firefighters.[23][24]

National flag variants

Other flag variants

Appearances and controversy

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

Critics argue that the "thin blue line" 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.[32][33] Many groups view it as a symbol of opposition to the racial justice movement.[34] The Canadian Anti-Hate Network has stated that it often encounters Thin Blue Line and 'back the blue' symbols on social media pages used by hate groups.[35] In the USA, white supremacists were documented carrying Thin Blue Line flags alongside the Confederate battle flag and Nazi flags at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.[11][36][37]

In recent years the use and display of the Thin Blue Line symbol has attracted controversy in several communities.

  • In Chicago, in November 2016, counter-protesters carried the black and white US flag symbol to show support for police after the police shooting of Joshua Beal, in opposition to another group of protesters who felt the shooting was unjust and racially motivated.[38]
  • 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.[39]
  • In 2017, Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, removed the flag after it gained notoriety with the Charlottesville demonstrators.[40]
  • 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 earlier. Due to accusations of racism from members of the York Diversity Forum, Charlie Black, the son of fallen State Police Trooper Charles Black subsequently took the flag down.[41]
  • 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.[42]
  • 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.[43][44]
  • In May 2021, the Edmonton Police Association drew criticism for flying a thin blue line flag atop their building. In response, a representative for the police association stated that they didn't "know where and how the symbolism of the blue line flag turned into being considered a racist or hateful type of thing". The police association has refused to remove the symbol.[45]
  • In August 2021 the village board of Mount Prospect, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, voted to remove the thin blue line flag patch from police officers' uniforms. The police chief had stated that the symbol was intended as "a memorial to police officers killed serving their community". However one trustee noted that "this patch is considered racist by many regardless of what the intent is".[46]

Injunctions against use

Since 2015, several jurisdictions have issued injunctions against the use of Thin Blue Line imagery on police uniforms or in other official capacities by emergency services.

In Canada

  • On October 9, 2020, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) issued a directive banning the wearing or displaying of symbols related to the Thin Blue Line by officers who are on duty. This directive was opposed by the National Police Federation, the police union that represents RCMP officers. In retaliation, the union ordered Thin Blue Line flags for all of its officers to wear against RCMP orders.[47][48][49][50] On June 5, 2021, RCMP officers engaged in removing protesters at Fairy Creek were criticized for wearing 'Thin Blue Line' patches on their uniforms despite the October 2020 directive forbidding its use.[51]
  • In October 2020, shortly after the RCMP directive, the Victoria Police Department in British Columbia banned Thin Blue Line flags from officers' uniforms. The police force in the neighbouring community of Saanich, British Columbia, also confirmed their injunction against police officers applying personalized decorations like the Thin Blue Line flag to their approved uniform.[52]
  • In February 2021, the City of Ottawa's police chief implemented uniform standards that would see any alterations, including the controversial “thin blue line” patch, banned from officers’ on-the-job attire.[53]
  • In May 2021, Toronto police officers were photographed wearing the thin blue line patches on their uniforms while clearing out a homeless encampment at Lamport Stadium. The police officers were reminded that the symbol was not approved by the service’s clothing committee or the chief of police. This followed a similar incident in 2020 when a Toronto police officer was ordered to immediately remove a patch featuring a version of the thin blue line superimposed over the black skull symbol used by the Punisher comic book character.[35]

In Iceland

In the United Kingdom

  • In 2015, police officers in Sussex, England were instructed by their supervisors to remove a badge from their uniforms with a blue line across a union jack on the grounds that it was not part of their official uniform and could be seen as a political statement related to cutbacks in police forces.[30]
  • Hertfordshire Constabulary confirmed in December 2020 that a single discreet and appropriate badge may be worn on the tie or cravat. Poppies and other flags and emblems sold on authorised flag days may be worn. They are to be worn immediately above the right breast pocket of shirts, tunics (in a corresponding position on the female tunic, which has no pocket, body armour.[57]

In the United States

  • In 2017, following an incident in Riviera Beach, Florida where a group of police officers flew thin blue line flags on their personal vehicles, an order was issued by their captain to remove the flags.[58]
  • In May 2020, officers of the SFPD were forbidden from wearing non-medical face masks 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".[59]
  • 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 petition that garnered over 1,300 signatures for the flags to be removed in wake of the murder of George Floyd influenced the city to make the choice.[60]
  • In November 2020, the chief of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department banned use of the flag by officers while on duty on the grounds that the symbol had become associated with 'extremists'.[61] In a statement on January 15, 2021, Chief Roman said that extremists had "visibly co-opted the thin blue line flag".[62]
  • In May 2021, the towns of Manchester, South Windsor, Middletown, and Willimantic, all in Connecticut, banned or removed Thin Blue Line flags from their towns. In South Windsor, the flags were removed after the chief of police expressed concerns about displaying the flag. In Manchester, the flags were banned under a new city injunction against banners representing "a particular religious movement or creed," political party flags and flags "that enable violence, discrimination, prejudice, or racism."[11]
  • In January 2023, the LAPD banned the use of the flag. [63]

See also


  1. ^ a b Wall, Tyler (2019). "The police invention of humanity: Notes on the "thin blue line"". Crime, Media, Culture. 16 (3): 319–336. doi:10.1177/1741659019873757. S2CID 204382721.
  2. ^ a b c d e Day, Meagan (14 July 2016). "The problem with the 'thin blue line?' Cops aren't the army". Timeline (Medium). Archived from the original on 24 May 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d Chammah, Maurice; Aspinwall, Cary (9 June 2020). "The Short, Fraught History of the 'Thin Blue Line' American Flag". Politico. Retrieved 10 June 2020.
  4. ^ Longazel, Jamie (1 July 2021). "'Blue Lives Matter' and the legacy of blackface minstrelsy". Race & Class. 63 (1): 91–106. Retrieved 23 January 2023. Blue Lives Matter countermovement, which emerged in 2014 as a rebuttal to Black Lives Matter and gained traction following high-profile
  5. ^ John S. Dempsey; Linda S. Forst; Steven B. Carter (1 January 2018). An Introduction to Policing. Cengage Learning. p. 34. ISBN 978-1-337-55875-4. Archived from the original on 18 September 2020. Retrieved 24 January 2019. A pro-police movement called Blue Lives Matter was established in response to Black Lives matter and to the increasing attacks on law enforcement, which resulted in 63 officer line-of-duty deaths by gunfire in 2016.
  6. ^ a b Dempsey, John S.; Forst, Linda S.; Carter, Steven B. (2018). An Introduction to Policing. Cengage Learning. p. 34. ISBN 9781337558754.
  7. ^ a b Mueller, Benjamin; Baker, Al (20 December 2014). "2 N.Y.P.D. Officers Killed in Brooklyn Ambush; Suspect Commits Suicide". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 26 July 2021.
  8. ^ a b Desmond-Harris, Jenée (22 December 2014). "Why it's wrong to blame protesters for the Brooklyn cop killings". Vox. Retrieved 26 July 2021.
  9. ^ "Barring Of 'Thin Blue Line' Flag Display Stirs Controversy In Montgomery County". Retrieved 13 August 2021.
  10. ^ Rossman, Sean Rossman and Sean. "'Thin Blue Line': What does an American flag with a blue line mean?". USA TODAY. Retrieved 13 August 2021.
  11. ^ a b c Leavenworth, Jesse (19 May 2021). "Manchester police remove Thin Blue Line flag from station". Hartford Courant.
  12. ^ a b c "The Short, Fraught History of the 'Thin Blue Line' American Flag". The Marshall Project. 8 June 2020. Retrieved 13 January 2021.
  13. ^ Anderson, N. D. (1911). The Voice of the Infinite. Sherman, French. p. 6. Retrieved 1 October 2017. thin blue line.[non-primary source needed]
  14. ^ Shaw, David (25 May 1992). "Chief Parker Molded LAPD Image--Then Came the '60s : Police: Press treated officers as heroes until social upheaval prompted skepticism and confrontation". Los Angeles Times.
  15. ^ Lasley, J. (2012). Los Angeles Police Department Meltdown: The fall of the professional reform model of policing. Boca Raton, Florida: Taylor & Francis. pp. 1–26. ISBN 9781439899175..
  16. ^ "thin". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 29 June 2018. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  17. ^ "Thin Blue Line: Interview Gallery". Errol Morris. Retrieved 13 December 2016.
  18. ^ Hodges, Ann C.; Pugh, Justin (June 2018). "Crossing the Thin Blue Line: Protecting Law Enforcement Officers Who Blow the Whistle" (PDF). UC Davis Law Review Online. 52 (1): 8. SSRN 3193264. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  19. ^ Walker, Charles C. (5 September 1978). "Abuses". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Cheyney, Pennsylvania. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  20. ^ "Chief removes Punisher emblem, 'Blue Lives Matter' from police cars after public reacts". Lexington Herald-Ledger.
  21. ^ "Punisher Creator Gerry Conway: Cops Using the Skull Logo Are Like People Using the Confederate Flag". SyFy Wire. 8 January 2019.
  22. ^ Punisher Co-Creator Gerry Conway Wants to Reclaim Iconic Skull Logo for Black Lives Matter - IGN, retrieved 25 June 2020
  23. ^ Rice, Briana. "What do 'Thin Blue Line' and 'Thin Red Line' flags mean?". The Cincinnati Enquirer. Retrieved 30 March 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  24. ^ Kovach, John (18 October 2020). "Firefighters: 'Thin red line' flag stolen off Middletown fire engine". The Middletown Press. Retrieved 30 March 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  25. ^ a b c d "Nášivka "Tenká Modrá Linie" – Thin Blue Line". Krimi-Plzeň (in Czech). 14 January 2020.
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  27. ^ "Poliisien hihoissa näkyvät kielletyt Suomen liput herättävät kysymyksiä – poliisitarkastaja: "Siihen on puututtu, mutta lopputulos ei ole tyydyttävä"". 31 October 2019.
  28. ^ a b "Stal, laug og rauf sóttkví" (in Icelandic). Morgunblaðið. 21 October 2020. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  29. ^ "Маріупольці продовжують підтримувати поліцію: власники підприємства ТОВ «Бетонмікс» у Центральному районі долучилися до руху «Тонка синя лінія» - Маріупольське районне управління поліції".
  30. ^ a b "Sussex PC told to remove union jack police charity badge". BBC News. 17 February 2015.
  31. ^ Murkrow [@ginkgogoes] (5 January 2020). "🙄 they're wearing "thin blue line" flags now" (Tweet). Archived from the original on 11 November 2020 – via Twitter.
  32. ^ Kurtz, Don L.; Colburn, Alayna (2019). "Police Narratives as Allegories that Shape Police Culture and Behaviour". In Fleetwood, Jennifer; Presser, Lois; Sandberg, Sveinung; Ugelvik, Thomas (eds.). The Emerald Handbook of Narrative Criminology. Emerald Publishing. p. 330.
  33. ^ Harris, David A. (2012). Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science. New York University Press. p. 106.
  34. ^ Navratil, Liz; Montemayor, Stephen; Mannix, Andy (13 April 2021). "Chief: Officer meant to use Taser, not firearm, on Daunte Wright". Star Tribune. Retrieved 13 April 2021.
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  36. ^ "Courthouse Removes Flag After White Supremacists Display It". U.S. News & World Report. Associated Press. 25 August 2017.
  37. ^ Rossman, Sean (18 August 2017). "'Thin Blue Line': What does an American flag with a blue line mean?". USA Today.
  38. ^ Ludwig, Howard (November 20, 2016). "Three Groups of Protesters Come Face To Face in Mount Greenwood". DNAinfo. Archived from the original on June 21, 2018. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  39. ^ Bayne, Richard J. (6 December 2016). "Blue line causes friction in Warwick". Times Herald-Record.
  40. ^ Matsumoto, Samantha (25 August 2017). "Ore. sheriff removes 'Thin Blue Line' flag from courthouse break room". The Oregonian. PoliceOne.
  41. ^ "Son of slain Maine state trooper says it's time to move on after Thin Blue Line flag removed". Bangor Daily News. 30 July 2019. Retrieved 26 August 2019.
  42. ^ McKenzie, Ian (31 May 2020). "Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Flew Blue Line Flag". Cincinnati Enquirer. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  43. ^ Smith, Tovia (31 July 2020). "Thin Blue Line Flags Stir Controversy In Mass. Coastal Community". NPR. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  44. ^ Fox, Jeremy C. (30 July 2020). "'Thin blue line' flags removed from Hingham fire trucks with help from Weymouth police". The Boston Globe.
  45. ^ Junker, Anna (27 May 2021). "Edmonton Police Association says controversial thin blue line flag a show of solidarity". Edmonton Journal. Retrieved 27 May 2021.
  46. ^ DeGrechie, Eric (11 August 2021). "Thin Blue Line Flags Removed from Mount Prospect Police Uniforms". Arlington Heights Patch. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
  47. ^ Campbell, Morganne (11 October 2020). "RCMP directive eliminates wearing of 'thin blue line' patch while on duty". Global News.
  48. ^ Quan, Douglas (9 October 2020). "RCMP officers told not to wear symbol depicting 'thin blue line'". Toronto Star.
  49. ^ Quan, Douglas (12 October 2020). "RCMP union pushes back against ban on 'thin blue line' symbol, says it has ordered custom patches". Toronto Star.
  50. ^ Beattie, Samantha (13 October 2020). "RCMP Union Tells Officers To Proudly Wear Controversial 'Thin Blue Line' Symbol". Huffington Post Canada.
  51. ^ Coyne, Todd (5 June 2021). "Mounties criticized for wearing 'thin blue line' patches at B.C. old-growth logging protests". CTV.
  52. ^ Lawrence, April (21 October 2020). "VicPD, RCMP ban thin blue line patches from uniforms". CHEK News.
  53. ^ Lord, Craig (22 February 2021). "Ottawa police chief bans officers from wearing 'thin blue line', other patches". Global News.
  54. ^ Sophia Fontaine, Andie (21 October 2020). "Flags On Police Uniform Raise Questions; Capital Area Police Respond". The Reykjavík Grapevine. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  55. ^ "REGLUGERÐ um einkennisfatnað lögreglunnar" (in Icelandic). Stjórnartíðindi. 12 May 2021. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  56. ^ Sophia Fontaine, Andie (15 June 2021). "Justice Minister Bans Police From Wearing Racist Imagery". The Reykjavík Grapevine. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  57. ^ Sharron Woodward: Request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Ref No: FOI2020/06474.
  58. ^ Magnoli, Mike (14 March 2017). "Thin Blue Line Flag controversy". WPEC.
  59. ^ Gearty, Robert (3 May 2020). "San Francisco police chief nixes officers' 'Thin Blue Line' coronavirus masks". Fox News. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  60. ^ Salzo, Vincent (2 June 2020). "'Thin Blue Line' Flags Taken Down At Middletown Police Department". Patch. Retrieved 4 June 2020.
  61. ^ Griffith, Janelle (29 January 2021). "Police chief bans 'Thin Blue Line' imagery, says it's been 'co-opted' by extremists". NBC News. Retrieved 30 March 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  62. ^ "Thin Blue Line Update". UW–Madison Police Department. 26 January 2021. Retrieved 30 March 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  63. ^ Parks, Kristine (13 January 2023). "LAPD bans Thin Blue Line flag over complaint it represents 'racist, bigoted views'". Fox News. Retrieved 14 January 2023.