After backlash from a November social media photo that showed a “thin blue line” flag displayed in the UW-Madison Police Department’s office, Police Chief Kristen Roman has banned officers from using thin blue line imagery while acting in an official police capacity.
Some see the controversial flag as a symbol of solidarity with police, but it has also been flown by white supremacists, including those who stormed the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 in an attempt to overturn the legitimate election defeat of former President Donald Trump. Five people, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer, died in the riot.
In an email to UW-Madison Police staff that was released Tuesday, Roman said the flag has been “co-opted” by extremists with “hateful ideologies.” She said her department needs to distance itself from thin blue line imagery to build trust with the community.
“We must consider the cost of clinging to a symbol that is undeniably and inextricably linked to actions and beliefs antithetical to UWPD’s values,” she said in the Jan. 15 email.
Roman said public displays of the blue line imagery — including flags, pins, bracelets, notebooks, coffee mugs and more — are now prohibited. Visible tattoos with the flag are the exception and are still allowed. Roman said she also may make some exceptions for displays during certain events, such as funerals for those who have died during the line of duty.
The outright ban is a contrast to Roman’s initial response back in November when her department was criticized for its use of the flag.
UW police posted a photo to its Twitter page Nov. 15 of a group of officers in the department’s office. The flag is seen up on the wall in the background.
The post was met with backlash from UW-Madison student activists, who denounced the display of the flag and called for its removal, Madison365 reported. The students said university police were effectively endorsing white supremacy and ignoring the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer, which called for an end to racism and police brutality, as well as police accountability.
In recent years, the thin blue line flag has become a prominent part of “Blue Lives Matter,” a pro-police movement that has risen in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement. It has also been flown alongside the Confederate flag.
In a Nov. 17 statement, Roman said her department condemned the use of the flag when it was “intended to defend hate” or “invalidate social justice movements advocating for meaningful police reform.”
But she also defended the flag in some contexts, explaining that to police, the flag symbolizes officers’ commitment to public service and their willingness to sacrifice their own lives to protect others. The line is meant to symbolize police as the “thin line” that protects society from chaos. She acknowledged that it has recently been used to support white supremacy and “dishonor the police profession.”
At the time, Roman did not commit to removing the flag, nor another thin blue line “installation” at the Police Department’s office. She did commit to “including this concern as part of our ongoing discussions both internally and externally.”
In her recent email to staff, Roman said her past efforts to explain what the flag means to some officers while also denouncing the hateful acts committed under the banner of the thin blue line “continue to fall short in ways I can’t simply ignore.’
“I understand that this decision may cause emotional responses, even anger from some,” Roman said. “I, too, feel hurt and disappointed as we confront our current reality. I know this is hard. I know this issue is complicated.”
She told officers that their commitment to serving the community has to come before their affinity for a particular symbol.
“At the end of the day, we have dedicated ourselves to a profession that demands service above self,’ she said. “As such, relevant community concerns, perceptions, and fears necessarily outweigh our shared professional investment in a symbol that presently separates and alienates us from those we have promised to serve.”