Smithtown Fire Department officials this month replaced a thin blue line flag flown on a department vehicle with an American flag, a move that follows orders by police chiefs elsewhere in the nation to restrict or ban display of the design by on-duty officers.
The black and white, blue-striped design has come to signal support for the police and was sometimes seen on flags and T-shirts at pro-police rallies across Long Island last summer. But its symbolism is complicated. Those rallies were held partly in response to Black Lives Matter marches and were sometimes enmeshed with electoral politics, as in a July Village of the Branch gathering that featured mostly Republican activists and politicians and Trump 2020 banners alongside Back the Blue messaging. The blue line flag was also carried by white supremacists at several high-profile events across the nation last year and by members of the mob who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Fire district officials made the switch "in the interest of harmony," said Christopher Ring, a lawyer for the Smithtown Fire District, after Newsday forwarded a photograph an area woman took of the flag flying from the rear of the department’s Rescue 9 truck as it drove down Smithtown’s Main Street. "There was no intent to offend anybody," Ring said. "They chose to err on the side of caution and replace the flag."
On Jan. 15, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department chief banned officers there from displaying thin blue line imagery while on duty, citing the "fear and mistrust that it currently evokes for too many in our community." Last spring, San Francisco’s police chief said the city’s officers would wear neutral face coverings after officers sparked controversy by wearing blue line face masks while patrolling a May Day protest.
Suffolk and Nassau police departments prohibit most alterations to department vehicles accept by authorization of the department commissioner. "This prohibition includes the affixing of unauthorized bumper stickers and/or signage expressing political views, or otherwise, to department vehicles or other department property," a Suffolk spokesperson wrote in an email.
Ring said the blue flag had flown on Rescue 9 since Dec. 20, 2014, to honor NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who were shot to death in Brooklyn that day by a man who had vowed to kill officers to avenge the killings of Black men by police
Ring said firefighters had wanted to honor police officers they sometimes bonded with at work.
A 2020 story by the Marshall Project, a journalism nonprofit covering criminal justice, traced the "thin blue line" phrase to the 19th century, when it was used by poets before being popularized by a savvy police commissioner. The design was complicated, commercialized and refashioned in recent years as it filtered through social media.
That story highlights Thin Blue Line USA, described as one of the largest online retailers of items bearing the design. The blue flag represents "the men and women of law enforcement who hold the divide between order and chaos," says a man in a police uniform in a video on the site.
But text elsewhere on the site suggests that even that explanation has been made problematic by recent history: "We reject in the strongest possible terms any association of the flag with racism, hatred, bigotry, and violence."