Last month, a number of citizens pointed out to city officials the use of a “Thin Blue Line” flag on the back of Urbana Police Department vehicles memorializing Lt. Harley D. Rutledge, a former UPD police officer that passed away in 2017. (See the sticker above the title of this article.) This was brought to the attention of Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin and Urbana Police Department Sgt. Bryant Seraphin, and eventually, the stickers were removed from police vehicles due to public concern about the emblem and its connection to the Blue Lives Matter counter-movement and what that symbol represents.

Though there was supposed to be a public announcement about the removal of the stickers, that has not yet come to fruition. Smile Politely obtained an email dated July 2nd from Sgt. Serphain, stating the following: 

Good afternoon,

Lt. Rutledge died tragically while on vacation three years ago today; officers wanted to recognize his passing back in 2017. As a result, they decided to use the Thin Blue Line flag as the basis for the memorial sticker with the verbiage "In memory of Lt. Harley Rutledge 424" (424 was his badge number). The sticker is subdued and has been on the cars for closing in on three years. The sticker does not say "Blue Lives Matter." Nonetheless, the Mayor and I spoke this morning, and she has decided that we will arrange for a replacement memorial sticker that we will use for the remainder of the (sic) life of this fleet of vehicles.

The sticker was merely meant as a memorial and not meant to enter into any debate about the value of lives.

-Bryant

So, in the end, citizens spoke up, and the stickers were removed. But now what?


On its face, this homage to the late Lt. Rutledge has all the best intentions. However, the Thin Blue Line flag has a certain connotation that cannot be ignored. The Marshall Project took a deep dive into the history of the symbol and how it is widely understood to perpetuate white supremacy, and stand in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement. As recently as last week, NBA star James Harden was criticized for wearing a Thin Blue Line mask

When asked about the symbol’s connection to white supremacy, the leader of Thin Blue Line USA said (as per The Marshall Project’s article linked above), “The flag has no association with racism, hatred, bigotry,” and “It’s a flag to show support for law enforcement — no politics involved”. Though it seems like it should go without saying, all emblems and icons are political. The flag and its intention to “show support for law enforcement” is inherently political; it taps into racism, hate, and bigotry, because the system of policing in America has both historical and current ties to all of those things. 

Regardless of what people think the Thin Blue Line emblem represents, Blue Lives Matter organizers literally co-opted the emblem to be the face of their counter-movement in opposition to Black Lives Matter, as a way to show support for law enforcement, as Black people continue to be murdered by police in America.

The adoption of the symbol was by design — not an innocent coincidence — and is no longer  up for interpretation. We don’t need to be experts in semiotics to understand how signs and symbols can change over time. Law enforcement should have a much broader understanding of the symbols they are displaying on their vehicles as they drive out into the communities they claim to “protect and serve”. Not understanding this nuance is completely unacceptable and legitimately harmful.The continued perpetuation of the emblem by law enforcement — a taxpayer-funded organization — is clearly problematic.

To that end, we asked our law enforcement officials this question, and you can see their responses below:

Speaking as a representative of your department, what do you believe the use of the “Thin Blue Line” flag represents? How is this similar or different from the use of the same emblem within the "Blue Lives Matter" movement?

ANTHONY COBB, CHIEF OF POLICE, CHAMPAIGN POLICE DEPARTMENT; BRYANT SERAPHIN, CHIEF OF POLICE, URBANA POLICE DEPARTMENT; THOMAS BROWN, CHIEF OF POLICE, RANTOUL POLICE DEPARTMENT

Thank you for reaching out to us to learn our perspective.  Please note that since we serve the same Champaign, Urbana, and Rantoul community, the Champaign, Urbana, and Rantoul Police Departments have decided to respond together. 

To our Departments, the “Thin Blue Line” represents the men and women who possess a selfless commitment to community and public safety, and who have the courage to confront danger, so it does not find our friends, neighbors and families. It honors the sacrifice of law enforcement who have died in the line of duty while acknowledging the officers who continue to accept the responsibility of public safety with great valor and civility.

The responsibility of law enforcement is to serve and protect through unconditional respect. As public servants, we do not view the “Thin Blue Line” as a source of division. Police and the community need to be working together to produce and evolve public safety services. However, we understand in recent years the true meaning behind the term has been taken away from its intended purpose. It’s been adopted by some who do not represent the ideals and values of our police departments, nor appreciate what it means to strengthen the bonds of trust between police and residents by coming together through empathy and mutual understanding.

To our officers, the “Thin Blue Line” signals solidarity in our profession, representing a promise to those we serve and protect and to the many who have come before us that we will do so at all hours of the day and night, as well as be responsive to the changing needs of the community.

ALICE CARY, CHIEF OF POLICE, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS POLICE DEPARTMENT

DID NOT RESPOND

MICHAEL METZLER, CHIEF OF POLICE, MAHOMET POLICE DEPARTMENT

DID NOT RESPOND

DUSTIN HEUERMAN, CHAMPAIGN COUNTY SHERIFF

I’ll admit that when I heard that the Urbana Police Department was removing the memorial stickers that honor a fallen officer because of its incorporation of/association with the “Thin Blue Line,” I was a bit confused. I’m not a stranger to the “Thin Blue Line” term, but as I researched it a bit recently, I realized that some get a different impression from the term than I do.

My personal view of the “Thin Blue Line” concept is not of an “us versus them” mentality, but rather as a symbol of solidarity from a group of people with the same unique experiences - experiences that are not always fully understood by those not in that group. Sometimes not even by our own family members.

I don’t believe any police department or Sheriff’s Office can adequately serve its community when an “us versus them” attitude is present. Those of you who know me know I am part of the LGBTQ+ community and have a Latino husband. These groups have not always had a good relationship with police and still struggle with it today. My personal goal, and the goal of my administration at the Sheriff’s Office, is to bring our diverse community together and show that everyone in our community matters, not just some.

Not everyone can be a police officer, and not everyone should be a police officer. It takes the right type of person to keep the community safe while also being compassionate and open-minded. There are very few professions that have to don a bullet proof vest while working for fear of being shot while responding to a shooting or robbery call, or have to worry about making it home to their families at the end of the night for fear of being hit by a car on an accident scene. To me, the “Thin Blue Line” is a display of solidarity that shows “I understand what you are going through. You are not alone.”

JOHN CARTER, MONTICELLO POLICE DEPARTMENT, CHIEF OF POLICE

The "Thin Blue Line" flag represents the officers (men and women) who keep society safe from violence and chaos. It also pays respect to those officers who have paid the ultimate price while protecting the communities they served. The "Thin Blue Line" has been around for quite some time representing the color of the police uniform. One of the early recorded use of the term "Thin Blue Line" was in 1922 by New York Police Commissioner Richard Enright. Later the term spread to law enforcement agencies all across the US.

As far as similarities and differences to the "Blue Lives Matter" you would have to ask the organizers of that group. I have no idea why they chose the emblem. 

The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Top image by Matthew Murrey.