The 'Thin Blue Line': How a simple phrase became a controversial symbol of the police

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A supporter of President Donald J. Trump holds a Thin Blue Line American flag to show their support for law enforcement during a campaign rally for President Donald Trump at the Reading Regional Airport in Bern Township, PA on October 31, 2020. Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
  • The "Thin Blue Line" flag, though simple in design, is anything but when it comes to meaning.

  • The imagery has been upheld by cops and conservative activists to demonstrate support for law enforcement.

  • But the flag has been wrought with controversy, going all the way back to the phrase that inspired it.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

It was flown at Trump campaign rallies, at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and worn as face masks by officers policing the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

The flag was also used to show support and mourn the deaths of five Dallas police officers who were ambushed by a gunman in 2016.

Most recently, the "Thin Blue Line" flag was seen at the attempted insurrection at the US Capitol building in January.

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Pro-Trump protesters clash with police at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S, January 6, 2021. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The imagery of a single blue line on a black-and-white American flag - inspired by the phrase "Thin Blue Line" - has sparked a fiery debate over the role of police and law enforcement.

Tom Nolan, associate professor of sociology at Emmanuel College who previously worked with the Boston Police Department, said the "Thin Blue Line" fosters an "us against them" mentality, in which "the police firmly believed that they are, in fact, the metaphorical and literal 'Thin Blue Line' between order and anarchy, between the good guys and the bad guys."

"I think when I was on the job, I might've actually espoused this belief myself because when you're immersed deeply in the subculture of policing, which most police officers are, this is how you see the world," Nolan told Insider.

Nolan, who has nearly 30 years of experience in law enforcement, said the controversy that follows the flag is rooted in the "construct" built by police officers "that there is this kind of schism between the good guys and the bad guys."

"The police feel threatened because their role as being the good guys and their supporters of being the good guys is being questioned," he said.

Here's how the simple phrase of the "Thin Blue Line" came to be wrought with so much controversy:

The phrase 'Thin Blue Line' dates back to the 1800s in London - but referencing a different color

Dating back to the 1850s, the "Thin Blue Line" was originally red. In the book "Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions," co-authors Elizabeth Thornburg and James Clapp wrote that the original phrase was coined during the Crimean War, referring to the red-coated British army.

The phrase "caught on with a public always receptive to romantic images of war, and thin red line - sometimes with 'of heroes' added for good measure - became a rhetorical appellation for the British army and British military might and grit generally," they wrote.

The phrase had also morphed through an assortment of colors throughout the remainder of the century - including a "thin red line of freemasons in crimson collars, a thin white line of bishops, a 'thin blue line' of public schoolboys in blazers and straw hats, [and] a thin brown line of Egyptian soldiers (a reference to skin color)," according to the book.

In the US, the phrase slowly began to take hold after occasionally being used to reference "blue-clad military troops."

More recently, the phrase became commonplace to refer to police forces. In 1924, the mayor of Chicago praised the city's police officers as "a 'thin blue line' between crime and our three millions of population," according to the book.

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In this Aug. 30, 2020 file photo, an unidentified man participates in a Blue Lives Matter rally in Kenosha, Wis. AP Photo/Morry Gash, File

The phrase eventually made its way to Los Angeles, notably by former Los Angeles Police chief William Parker. Parker joined the LAPD in 1927 and became chief in 1950, Thornburg and Clapp wrote, and he "saw the potential uses of this metaphor, and he exploited them so brilliantly that he is often erroneously credited with coining the phrase."

"The heroic identity implicit in 'Thin Blue Line' was just what Parker was after," they wrote. "Inheriting a department known to be a corrupt, patronage-ridden force, Parker wanted to transform the police into a professional organization, independent of politicians, and composed of committed, honest, disciplined officers."

Parker, however, was known for "unambiguous racism," according to an article from The Marshall Project.

"He said some immigrants were 'not far removed from the wild tribes of Mexico' and compared Black residents participating in the 1965 Watts Riots - which stemmed in part from anger over his own department's mistreatment - to 'monkeys in a zoo,'" according to The Marshall Project.

According to the Marshall Project article, Parker's tenure from the LAPD prompted a "bigger shift toward militarism in police departments, which came to buy military gear directly from the Department of Defense."

In 1988, film director Errol Morris released a scathing documentary about an innocent man who was arrested and convicted of murdering a police officer. The man was executed by electric chair "with the help of suppressed evidence, perjured testimony, and an emotional closing argument for the prosecution," according to "Lawtalk."

Ironically, Morris titled the film, "The Thin Blue Line."

"[The] final argument was one I had never heard before the thin blue line of police that separated the public from anarchy," the trial judge said in the film, according to the book. "And I have to concede that there my eyes kind of welled up when I heard that."

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A person holds a torn thin blue line American flag at a march and rally for President Donald Trump on 5th Avenue on October 25, 2020 in New York City. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Tensions surrounding the 'Thin Blue Line' began to heighten when the symbol was added to a rendition of the American flag

The "Thin Blue Line" phrase gave shape to the black, white, and blue American flag near the end of 2015 upon the inception of the Blue Lives Matter movement.

The Blue Lives Matter movement emerged as a counter-movement to Black Lives Matter, which was formed in protest of a string of incidents of police brutality and rallied against violence by law enforcement.

The Blue Lives Matter movement was aimed at advocating for law enforcement. Flag creator Andrew Jacob formed the idea to "give the police a flag to wave" amid the backlash against police officers in light of the deaths of Black men and boys - Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice - at the hands of the police, Jeff Sharlet wrote in Harper's Magazine.

"The flag has no association with racism, hatred, bigotry," Jacob, now the president of the Thin Blue Line USA, told The Marshall Project. "It's a flag to show support for law enforcement - no politics involved."

The flag, however, has been adopted by the conservative activists to show solidarity with the police, and it has also been picked up by far-right extremist groups as well. The flag made an appearance at the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which gathered white supremacist groups, including the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan. The company disavowed the flag's appearance at the rally.

Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter, told The Marshall Project last June that the flag "feels akin to a Confederate flag."

The flag began to divert away from an image of solidarity to an image of controversy

The image was banned by the police chief at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department for officers on duty. Chief Kristen Roman said in an email to staff in January that the symbol has been "co-opted" by "extremists."

She wanted to distance the department from the symbol due to "the fear and mistrust that it currently evokes for too many in our community," Insider's Kelsey Vlamis reported.

San Francisco Chief of Police Bill Scott banned officers from wearing face masks with the flag, expressing concern that it could be perceived as "divisive and disrespectful" after the masks had been given to officers by the local police union.

"We did it as a morale booster for each other, not as a political statement," union president Tony Montoya wrote in an op-ed for Law Enforcement Today.

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Demonstrators burned Thin Blue Line flags outside Sacramento Police Department on March 2, 2019, in Sacramento, California. Mason Trinca/Getty Images

Fletcher High School in Neptune Beach, Florida, banned the flag from being waved at football games in September 2020, and a school district in Pelham, New York, prohibited the flag late last year after some students said it made them feel unsafe.

Some cops still find the 'Thin Blue Line' flag as a symbol of solace and respect for lost officers

Dallas Police Sgt. Stephen Bishopp defended the flag, saying that whenever he sees "that flag as a sticker on a car or flying in someone's yard, I know that there is someone there that knows what I'm going through."

"They know because they are a part of the family," Bishopp told The Marshall Project. "I don't really care if it bothers people or hurts their feelings to see that flag. I absolutely could care less. I am proud of what I do, the people I work with, and the ones who have died defending the rights of strangers."

"I will continue to fly that flag until my very last day," Bishopp added.

Nolan said he experienced this "sense of solidarity" back during his days on the force, but the caveat was that it could create animosity between officers and the public, which could be embodied in the flag.

"We have this sense of solidarity where no one ever breaks ranks, no one ever speaks out, and we all protect each other, ... and I expect that I'm going to have my fellow officers have that they're going to have my back," Nolan told Insider. "And, you know, that's why the 'Thin Blue Line' is so thin, ... but it has taken on this kind of menacing, insidious symbol of, 'you're either with us or against us. And if you're against us, you're the enemy.'"

Michael White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University, echoed the sentiment that the flag could create a divisive nature, noting that "the police and community together should work together, in order to produce safety."

"Each should respect the role of the other," White told The Marshall Project. "If you're looking at the community as a potential enemy, or a threat, that's certainly going to hinder any positive relationship."

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