Updated: Governor, Police Union Criticize Elrich, Jones for Declining ‘Thin Blue Line’ Flag

Updated: Governor, Police Union Criticize Elrich, Jones for Declining ‘Thin Blue Line’ Flag

Hogan urges Montgomery County to reverse ‘outrageous’ decision

| Published:
Thin Blue Line flag

Montgomery County police officers pose with resident James Shelton and his son, who gave the department a handmade wooden flag with the "Thin Blue Line" symbol.

Photo from Montgomery County Police Department

Maryland’s governor and Montgomery County’s police union are criticizing County Executive Marc Elrich and Acting Police Chief Marcus Jones for declining a wooden American flag given to 5th District officers last Wednesday.

The flag depicts the “Thin Blue Line,” a symbol used to signal solidarity with police officers and emblemize their role in maintaining order. Critics say the symbol promotes an “us versus them” mentality on the part of police officers, and point to the symbol’s use by some white nationalist groups.

During the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., some white nationalists carried the symbol as a sign of protest. However, Thin Blue Line USA, an online shop that carries multiple products with the image, criticized its use by protesters at the rally.

That appropriation, and the flag’s use by the Blue Lives Matter movement — a direct counter to the Black Lives Matter movement that formed after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown — have transformed it into a politicized symbol not suitable for display on county property, Elrich said in a phone interview on Sunday.

But Hogan, a Republican, “strongly” called on Elrich, a Democrat, to reverse his decision in a series of messages on Twitter on Sunday morning — adding that the same flag “proudly” hangs in the governor’s mansion in Annapolis to support police.

He called it “outrageous and unconscionable” that Montgomery County would “outlaw” the flag from hanging in a county building.

In a statement posted on Facebook on Saturday night, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 said the flag represents “the sacrifices and dedication of police officers who daily risk their lives, health, limbs and own well-being in service to their community.” Declining to display the flag was “an act of outright disrespect” to the county’s working police force, the statement read.

The police department first publicly shared information about the gift on Wednesday in a message on Twitter. The department thanked resident James Shelton for giving the county’s 5th District station a handmade wooden American flag. A blue line stands in for one of the bars that normally would be red.

The flag was primarily a gift from Shelton’s son with assistance from his father, Capt. Tom Jordan, a spokesman for the police department, clarified in an email on Sunday.

The department wrote in the tweet that the flag would be displayed in the 5th District station.

But Elrich said he didn’t know that the police department would publicly thank Shelton for the gift and share a picture of him and his son with the flag. Almost immediately, Elrich’s office began receiving calls and complaints about allowing the police to display a Blue Lives Matter flag on county property, he said.

“It’s really frustrating to me because I wasn’t trying to pick a fight and I wish the [public information officers] with the police department had thought a little bit more before they made that post,” Elrich said. He looked online and realized the flag was used by the Blue Lives Matter movement, including the official Facebook page for the group.

Blue Lives Matter has been criticized for appearing to dismiss, or defend, the actions of officers involved in police brutality. Elrich said allowing the flag would have created another “flashpoint” between the police department and the community at a time when the county was trying to heal the relationship.

He was also frustrated that Hogan weighed into the debate, calling it “tone deaf” toward Maryland residents who might be offended by the flag — especially after high-profile protests against police officers in Baltimore.

“I guess we’re in an era of dog-whistle politics now,” Elrich added. “I mean, going after it as this ‘disgusting’ thing to do — it’s ignoring the concerns of a lot of your constituents.” 

Almost 12 hours after posting the photo, the Montgomery County Police Department responded with a statement from Elrich.

“Acting Police Chief Marcus Jones and I understand the concerns of the community,” the statement read. “The flag provides a symbol of support to some but it is a symbol of dismissiveness to others. Because it is divisive, the flag will not be posted at the 5th District nor in any public space within the Police Department.”

“Under my administration, we are committed to improving police relations with the community and will immediately address any action that stands against our mission,” the statement continued.

Shelton gave another flag — this one with a bright red line — to Fire Station 31 in North Potomac on the same day. Lt. Brent Frain, a commander with the station, said both flags were presented as gifts in honor of National First Responders Day, which falls on Oct. 28.

The flag is still hanging at the station, and Frain said firefighters had not been ordered to take it down.

“We were very proud that someone in our local community would think of us in that manner,” he said in a phone interview on Sunday.

Frain said he was not aware of a negative connotation attached to either symbol.

“I really have no idea,” he added. “I haven’t looked into all the bases, but I’m not exactly sure what the problem is.”

Elrich said he would not direct the fire department to take down the flag because the “Thin Red Line” — the symbol’s equivalent for firefighters — had not been co-opted by white nationalist groups or the Blue Lives Matter Matter movement, which he said is also frequently associated with racial bias by constituents.

“It’s still the ‘Thin Red Line’ — the fire flag,” he said. “And maybe if it was 10 years ago, the ‘Thin Blue Line’ would still be the ‘Thin Blue Line’ and none of this would have happened. But unfortunately, this symbol has been appropriated so that’s it’s no longer useable.”

Shelton could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday morning through a business account he lists with Etsy, an online commerce site. Two phone calls to numbers listed online for his business address in Germantown went unanswered.

Elrich has made police reform a focus of his administration, criticizing the department for several high-profile incidents of misconduct, including a white officer who used a racial slur to characterize four black men outside a White Oak McDonald’s.

Elrich initially declined to nominate Jones for the permanent role of police chief, saying that “for the kind of change you expect, you want someone from the outside.” Elrich later selected Jones as his nominee after his first two choices withdrew from consideration.

FOP Lodge 35 endorsed Elrich in his 2018 run for county executive. But in the union’s statement on Saturday, the Lodge accused him of an “arbitrary, political action” and criticized Jones, as well.

“We … are especially disappointed that Marcus Jones does not demonstrate appreciation and understanding of the concerns of working police officers,” the union wrote. “… Too many have made the supreme sacrifice and we will not allow political pandering by Jones and Elrich to diminish their service.”

The Montgomery County Council is scheduled to interview Jones and vote on his appointment at a meeting on Tuesday.

A nonprofit group of active and retired law enforcement officers called Brothers Before Others posted on Twitter on Sunday that Montgomery County leaders are spreading “false rhetoric” about the “Thin Blue Line” flag. The group pledged to hand out up to 75 flags at the Fifth District station at noon on Friday to any active Montgomery County police officer who wants one.

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