Thin blue line patches worn by on-duty Calgary police officers will need to be replaced with a symbol that better reflects the values of Calgarians, following a decision by the Calgary Police Commission. The decision is aimed at ending the use of the controversial patch that has mixed meanings, while still ensuring there is a way for officers to visually honour each other and those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
Police officers and their families largely wear the thin blue line to honour the fallen, express support for those who serve and recognize the special role that police have in society. However, the thin blue line also has a contentious history with roots in division, colonialism and racism, most recently being prominently displayed at counter protests against the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We know members of the Service support the principles of community policing, being committed to those they serve and nurturing trust,” said Shawn Cornett, Chair of the Calgary Police Commission. “Members have also told us through engagement surveys that they are committed to addressing racial injustice and being respectful and compassionate towards all Calgarians, even those who do not reflect the views of the majority.”
“People in our community have clearly expressed that the thin blue line patch on police officers makes them uncomfortable due to its history and current use by groups opposing racial equity. As policing evolves, so must its symbols. Discontinuing the use of a symbol that is undermining some Calgarians’ trust in the police is the right thing to do,” added Chair Cornett.
The Commission’s decision follows a year-long consultation process by the Calgary Police Service that included conversations with Calgary’s two police associations, the Service’s leadership, Beyond the Blue (an organization that supports local police families), the Service’s Anti-Racism Action Committee, and the Service’s Community Advisory Boards. Support for the positive things the thin blue line represents was unanimous, while some participants raised concerns about the impact of the symbol’s alternate meanings in the community.
Calgary’s two police associations and Beyond the Blue have been invited to work with an independent creative agency hired by the Commission to design a new symbol that can be authorized for officers to wear moving forward. The invitation has not yet been accepted but remains open.
“The Commission and public, including many of the racialized Calgarians consulted, support the police and support visually honouring both the fallen and those currently serving. Officers in our city have an incredibly difficult job and we owe a debt of gratitude to them. We hope we can collaborate with officers and their families to create a suitable replacement for the thin blue line so that the positive things it represents are not lost,” said Chair Cornett.
The Commission remains committed to fulfilling its promise that was made to City Council and Calgarians in the fall of 2020 to be anti-racist and to address systemic racism. Replacing the thin blue line patch is one of many actions being taken as part of this promise.
While the thin blue line patch was never approved for officers to wear, it started regularly appearing on uniforms when officers were issued external body armour that includes places to attach patches. Officers have been allowed to continue wearing the thin blue line patch while the consultations on it were occurring, but all on-duty officers will now be expected to stop wearing it by the end of the month.
Background on the thin blue line
The historical roots of the thin blue line are in colonial ideals that have caused immense suffering for Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and people of colour all around the world. It is based on the “thin red line,” a phrase that came from an 1854 Crimean War battle in which a regiment of Scottish soldiers spread into a thin line to stop an enemy advance. While the phrase has been used since to celebrate bravery and professionalism in battle, it also celebrated a colonial military that forcibly took land from Indigenous Peoples and people of colour all over the world in the name of spreading and expanding what was seen as a superior European culture.
The symbol has also been connected to racially charged and divisive moments in history. It was first popularized by Chief William H. Parker of the Los Angeles Police Department during a push to address corruption by dismantling independent police oversight and discouraging officers from building relationships with the community. During his tenure, he expressed views and implemented policies that made people of colour feel targeted by the police and ultimately contributed to the 1965 Watts Riot.
The thin blue line also fails to reflect the fundamental principle in Canadian policing that, “the police are the public and the public are the police.” While there are differing interpretations about what the thin blue line divides, visually it divides society into good people and the enemies of good people. It portrays a view where police exist separate from the community along a battle line where the people police deal with become adversaries of – not part of – our community.
This “us verses them” battle line depiction of policing inherent in the thin blue line is not consistent with the modern understanding that our world is not so easily divided into good and bad people. In most cases, public safety comes from the police joining with others in their community to collaboratively address the root causes of crime and to help those in crisis.
While police officers and their families today largely wear the thin blue line to honour the fallen and express support for those who serve as officers, the symbol’s contentious history continues. The thin blue line has been featured prominently in many high-profile protests that espoused white nationalist or racist views, most recently being prominently displayed at counter protests against the Black Lives Matter movement.
Even when police officers wearing the thin blue line patch are not meaning to support racist and divisive views, the connection to recent events and the visually divisive image of the symbol has an impact on people of colour and others who are not sure which of the many different meanings an officer is trying to express.
About the Calgary Police Commission
The Calgary Police Commission is a body of 10 community members and two city councillors appointed by City Council to provide independent citizen governance and oversight of the Calgary Police Service on behalf of all Calgarians.
To protect the political neutrality of the police, Alberta’s Police Act requires that the police chief report directly to the Commission and that the Commission give direction to the Service through the chief, police policies, monitoring of the police conduct complaints process, and approval of how the police budget is spent.