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Police chief bans 'Thin Blue Line' imagery, says it's been 'co-opted' by extremists

Chief Kristen Roman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said "hateful ideologies" run counter to the department's core values.
A man participates in a Blue Lives Matter rally in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 30, 2020.Morry Gash / AP file

University of Wisconsin-Madison's police chief has banned officers from using "Thin Blue Line" imagery while on duty.

Chief Kristen Roman informed officers of the ban in a Jan. 15 email that was made public this week.

The department faced criticism in November over a photo posted to its Twitter account that showed a "Thin Blue Line" flag displayed at the police department's office.

The "Thin Blue Line" flag, which resembles an American flag but has a blue stripe, is a sign of support for law enforcement but has also come to signal opposition to the racial justice movement and a symbol of white supremacy or support for the Blue Lives Matter cause.

Roman said that the flag has been "co-opted" by extremists with "hateful ideologies" in the promotion of their views that "run counter" to the department's "core values" and that it impedes "our efforts to build trust."

"Guided by our core values, my responsibility to ensure your safety as best I'm able, and by what I believe in my heart is the right thing to do under present circumstances, I am moved to enact specific measures to distance UWPD from the thin blue line imagery and the fear and mistrust that it currently evokes for too many in our community," she wrote.

She said she understood the complexity and sensitivity of the issue.

"Attempts I've made to point to distinctions and true meaning as well as denounce acts committed under the thin blue line banner nationally continue to fall short in ways I can't simply ignore," she wrote. "The balance has tipped, and 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."

Roman said that visible public displays of "Thin Blue Line" imagery — flags, pins, bracelets, notebooks, coffee mugs and decals — are not allowed while on duty. She said there would be exceptions for event-specific displays such as line-of-duty death observances.

Officers with "Thin Blue Line" tattoos are not required to cover them, she said, adding, "my intent is not that we reject outright the symbol for what we understand it to represent, nor do I believe it to be inherently racist/fascist as many purport."

Instead, she said, her "intent is to be reasonably responsive to its detrimental impact on many in our community for whom the visible symbol holds a very different meaning."

Roman mentioned that the flags were waved by "extremists" at the "insurrection" at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

She also urged officers to carefully consider the ways in which they "engage with those who espouse ideologies antithetical" to the department's core values and the constitution they have sworn to uphold.

"Be very cognizant of the consequences that jovial interaction, selfies, and the like, will have for the department and our broader community in the context of everything I've pointed to in this not-so-brief email," she said.

Some on-duty law enforcement officers were criticized — including one who posed for a selfie with the mostly white mob — by President-elect Joseph R. Biden and many others for their response to the pro-Trump rioters who breached the Capitol.

"No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn't have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol," Biden said a day after the attack. "We all know that's true, and it is unacceptable."

Five people, including Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, died in events related to the attack.

Roman concluded her email by saying that she understood her decision may upset or anger some officers and that she felt "hurt and disappointed as we confront our current reality."

"I know this is hard. I know this issue is complicated. I also know that a symbol is not what holds us together or makes us a team," she said. "Rather, it is our shared commitment to service and to first and foremost doing what's best for our community."