Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
In the past week, a debate of whether officers on duty should be allowed to wear a “Thin Blue Line” mask has erupted across the Elm City.
In January, an email exchange occurred between an anonymous resident, New Haven Police Department Chief Renee Dominguez and Mayor Justin Elicker, according to the New Haven Independent, which published the exchange this week. In the emails, the resident narrated an encounter where they saw two police officers at Lighthouse Road who had masks with the “Thin Blue Line” flag — a flag that has come to be associated with the pro-police “Blue Lives Matter” movement — hanging out of their pockets.
The sight of the flag alarmed the resident, and they wrote that they were disappointed by the idleness of the other officer at the scene.
“The Blue Lives Matter signals to me that this officer (and perhaps both officers) will choose to stand alongside fellow police officers in defiance of a community member’s negative police encounter, especially a Black person’s mistreatment, false arrest injury, or death,” the resident wrote in their email. “These officers need additional training to understand the gravity and the threat inherent in the public display of such a symbol.”
Dominguez wrote back in an email that the Thin Blue Line now possesses a negative connotation in the community because of how it the symbol was invoked to support “Blue Lives Matter.”
However, Dominguez said she considered the original meaning of the flag as harking back to the 1854 battle during the Crimean war, where the British infantry regiment in red uniforms stood against the Russian cavalry charge — a symbolic “Thin Red Line.” Dominguez said that police modified and adopted the symbol based on their blue uniforms and that it has come to symbolize courage.
“The thin blue line is a symbol of solidarity and professional pride within a dangerous, difficult profession and a solemn tribute to fallen police officers and their families who have been killed in the line of duty,” Dominguez said. “It represents pride the officers feel about their very noble, but also dangerous profession.”
Dominguez said that police officers take pride in improving the institutions to which they belong and are constantly working “to better relationships with the community in which they serve.”
The “Thin Blue Line” flag and symbol, however, represents a different meaning to Black and immigrant communities, as well as other communities of color. The symbol grew in popularity in the 1950s when a television show of the same name showed the Los Angeles Police Department using its proximity to Hollywood to bolster the public image of the police. According to the Marshall Project, the leader of the LAPD at this time, William H. Parker, was known to make racist remarks, suggesting at one point that immigrants were “not far removed from the wild tribes of Mexico” and that the behavior of Black people in the Watts Riots was similar to “monkeys in a zoo.” Parker would constantly use the phrase the “thin blue line” in his speeches. During his tenure, there was also a big shift towards militarism in police departments nationwide.
In this historical context, the phrase and flag have come to symbolize the overmilitarization and violence of the police for many communities of color, according to Rev. Boise Kimber, the pastor of First Calvary Baptist churches in New Haven.
Kimber said in a Monday press conference that the flag is becoming an obstacle to cultivating a working relationship between the New Haven community and the police. Kimber said he did not believe Dominguez’s response was adequate given the national reckoning over policing during the last year.
Elicker, who initially did not respond to the January email from the New Haven resident expressing concern over the use of the thin blue line symbol, said in an interview with the New Haven Independent on Monday that he did not believe officers on duty should be allowed to wear the mask on duty. Though Elicker said officers should feel proud of their profession and the thin blue line can be a means of showing such pride, he said he recognized that the symbol can be “offensive” to other members of the New Haven community.
Karen Dubois-Walton, Elicker’s opponent in the 2021 mayoral primary, took a different stance in a Facebook post Tuesday. Dubois-Walton wrote that she found the NHPD members’ use of the symbol as “troubling.”
“Policing can only be successful when the police have strong relationships with the community rooted in mutual understanding,” Dubois-Walton wrote. “The Acting Chief must hear what the community is saying and make a change, and the city must immediately strengthen its uniform and dress code policy.”
Thin Blue Line USA, one of the largest online retailers of pro-police apparel, was founded in 2014.