Dozens of demonstrators gathered on Friday outside the District 5 police station with a simple message for County Executive Marc Elrich: Don’t disparage the Thin Blue Line.
The symbol itself — a black-and-white American flag striped with a bright blue bar — was defiantly brandished by many in the crowd. Protesters pushed back against Elrich’s earlier decision that a donated “Thin Blue Line” flag was too politicized to hang at the police station.
The controversial police symbol earned new scrutiny last week after Germantown resident James Shelton and his son gave a handmade wooden version to District 5 officers in honor of National First Responders Day.
On Nov. 1, Elrich ruled that the flag would not be displayed at the station or any other public space within the Montgomery County Police Department. Gov. Larry Hogan, the local police union and Brothers Before Others, a national nonprofit for active and retired law enforcement, jumped into the fray, blasting Elrich’s decision online.
The New Jersey-based Brothers Before Others announced it would distribute free flags outside the District 5 station on Friday “as a sign of support” to MCPD officers.
“The ‘Thin Blue Line’ is a bond between police and the communities they serve,” spokesman Rob O’Donnell told supporters outside the station on Friday. “A bond that Elrich drove a wedge through when he put out his anti-police rhetoric.”
The group distributed 100 flags to anyone with an active or retired police ID badge, O’Donnell said, including several MCPD officers who lined up to thank the group for its support.
Dozens of Montgomery County residents also came to the station to show their support for officers.
To Sam and Pat Fenati — a Damascus couple who have lived in Montgomery County for 47 years — Elrich was wrong to characterize the flag as “divisive” in a statement addressing his decision.
“I understand that it’s been co-opted by people, but that doesn’t make it hateful,” Fenati said. “Why should we have to give up the flag because a few people misused it?”
Opponents of the flag frequently point to its appropriation by Blue Lives Matter, a counterprotest movement that formed as a direct response to the widely condemned police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The name of the group is a retort to the Black Lives Matter movement that demands accountability for officer-involved shootings.
Some white nationalist groups have also carried the symbol as a sign of protest. During the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., several white nationalists were photographed with the flag.
“The problem is that people don’t see it as the ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag,” Elrich said in an interview on Sunday. “People also see it as the Blue Lives Matter flag, and that’s what makes it controversial. So, I didn’t think it was appropriate for the county to engage in that.”
But the decision has sparked a wider dialogue between his administration and the police department over more general use of the flag.
While Elrich’s initial statement specifically addressed one particular flag given to one particular police station, the symbol is incorporated by the department in other ways, Police Chief Marcus Jones said in an interview this week.
Officers have said that there’s currently no policy against displaying the flag at their work stations. Police occasionally wear the flag as a pin on their uniforms, especially during funerals for other law enforcement officers.
Active-duty officers were told they were free to take one of flags offered by Brothers Before Others, Commander Mark Plazinski with the District 5 station said.
Elrich did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on the policy and whether it is uniformly applied. His spokesman, Barry Hudson, said dialogue between the administration and police department is ongoing.