Scott Johnson

We are in the midst of a police station remodel at city hall. The conversation on Friday was, “Chief, I just came from the remodel. Are you aware that a wall in the police station front reception area has been painted black?” “What?” I replied. “Why would it be painted black? That’s an unusual color for a police station reception area.” 

I left our temporary quarters at the fire station to go have a look. Sure enough, a wall painted black. Later, I learned that some department members had expressed their desire that the wall be painted black and with a horizontal blue line to be added later in the middle of the wall, the symbol for the “Thin Blue Line.” The intent was to honor all law enforcement officers in Itasca County. An admirable thought. 

No doubt, you have seen this symbol. It is a solid blue horizontal line or bar bordered on the top and bottom by a black rectangle. Its history can be traced back to the 1950s when then Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Parker used the phrase “Thin Blue Line” in a department produced television show by the same name. It did not become popular, however, until a 1988 documentary film by the same name appeared. It told the story of a Dallas, Texas police officer who was killed in the line of duty. Today, we find the emblem on window stickers, patches, T-shirts and flags. Recognized as a symbol in support of law enforcement, the color of the line is taken from the color of uniform that police officers wear.

For many, “The Thin Blue Line” represents the belief that the police are the only entity that stands between chaos and order or criminals and potential victims of crime. Others say that it stands as a memorial to connect law enforcement officers with those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Still others say it is a sign of solidarity between the men and women of law enforcement who put their lives on the line every day and night.

Others claim the symbol represents opposition and a veil of silence. In 2017, artwork containing the symbol was removed from display at the Connecticut state capitol after complaints that it stood in opposition of the Black Lives Matter movement. A March 19, 2019 article in the Chicago Sun Times reported that the symbol has been used by some to describe the way police officers rally around one of their own accused of criminal misconduct or abuse of power. I guess the meaning of the symbol is in the eye of the beholder, and there lies the problem.

I don’t believe the symbol is meant to be “anti” anything. I don’t object to it except when it is incorporated into our country’s flag. After all, the colors of the United States flag have meaning and, in my opinion, changing these colors ignores this and the sacrifices made by the members of our military. I don’t object to the symbol as that of solidarity or honoring law enforcement officers, especially those that have been killed in the line of duty. 

For me, there is a larger philosophical issue in how this symbol may be perceived. It is an issue that I have not seen discussed in police circles. It goes to the basic foundation of policing in America. You see, the model of policing we use in the United States was derived from the policing model put in place in London, England in 1829. One of its basic tenants was that the police are the people and the people are the police. The only real difference between the police and the people are that the police are citizens who devote their full-time attention to what is everyone’s responsibility. 

The Grand Rapids Police Department has 20 sworn officers. To think that this police department, or any police department, is the only thing that stands between criminals and victims, chaos and disorder, simply isn’t realistic. It takes everyone, not just the police, to maintain order and keep communities safe. It takes a whole community. Every time a citizen reports a drunk driver, domestic dispute, a fight, a theft in progress, a suspicious vehicle or provides information that helps solve a crime, they are the line. The line isn’t thin, but it is blue. The line is wide as it includes the entire community, including the police. Blue isn’t just representative of the blue uniform of police officers. It is representative of the residents and others that wear blue jeans, blue ties, blue dresses and blue hospital scrubs. Police cannot do it alone. It takes everyone in the community working in collaboration and in solidarity. 

I don’t know what will happen with the black wall at the police station. I do know that there won’t be a thin blue line painted on the wall. Maybe it will be a very wide blue line. 

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