‘Us Versus Them’

Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office using “Thin Blue Line” and “Blue Lives Matter” flag on recruitment truck

Parked outside Tomasita's on a recent afternoon, a Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office recruitment truck caught the eye of a local resident, who snapped a quick photo and shared it with SFR. On the side of the four-door 2019 Ford F150 SSV: a large, black-and-white American flag with a blue stripe through the center.

To those who don't know the history of this rendition of the American flag, it might look creative and patriotic—but the "Thin Blue Line" symbol, associated more recently with the "Blue Lives Matter" rallying cry, has a long and pockmarked history as a dog whistle for racists and over-aggressive police from Los Angeles to New York.

Its place in discriminatory and militarized policing against nonwhite and poor communities in the US renders it unusable on a taxpayer-funded vehicle, reads the email to SFR from the aforementioned Santa Fean, who asked not to be identified. The truck cost $44,207.59 and mostly functions as a community outreach and recruitment vehicle for the sheriff's community support services division, according to the department.

But Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza tells SFR the image on the truck is "a symbol of camaraderie, of togetherness," a comfort for his deputies, "knowing that their other law enforcement brothers and sisters are out there for them in a time of need, in an emergency situation, that they would lay down their lives for them."

The department's recruitment division designed the truck and it's been on the streets for nearly a year. Mendoza says it's the first time the symbol has been used at the sheriff's office. He doesn't see a problem.

But many do.

Artemisio Romero y Carver, 18, is a steering committee member at Youth United for Climate Crisis Action in Santa Fe and identifies as Latinx. He tells SFR it's "alarming" that local law enforcement identifies with a symbol related to the support of racial violence. He also sees it as an unfair image to place on all deputies within the sheriff's department.

"The symbol obviously has a terrible history, a terrible history to relate to officers in our town and to imply that officers are in continuation of," Romero y Carver says.

The "Thin Blue Line" has been described as the boundary between order and chaos that only armed law enforcement officials can keep. It's been used since the early 1900s in the US in speeches and propaganda by racists and law enforcement leaders—perhaps most infamously by Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, who compared Black people to monkeys and believed that anyone who called his officers' policing racist was undermining the safety of the entire city.

Parker claimed that a "thin blue line" was the only thing that stood between the "law-abiding members of society and the criminals" who preyed on them. But for him, the criminals were mostly Blacks and Latinos.

When confronted with the dark beginnings of the "Thin Blue Line," the first-term Democratic sheriff insists that anyone who has a problem with the symbol is just listening to the "wrong narrative."

"I think it's been misused. You said it's been used, but I think it's been misused," Mendoza tells SFR. "I think our reputation for our respect for policing and community policing…speaks for itself, and anybody that uses the thin blue line to try to divide law enforcement and the community is just trying to make an issue out of something."

The symbol has certainly been used in recent years. It has moved from the mouths of law enforcement officials and the pens of policy makers hellbent on preserving the castle doctrine only for the wealthy and white, onto the symbol of freedom itself: the American flag. The black, white and blue rendition has proliferated across the country at "Blue Lives Matter" rallies and perhaps most notoriously, the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It's recent usage by white supremacist hate groups and the "Blue Lives Matter" movement, which gathered steam in 2014, has been seen as a countermovement to Black Lives Matter and putting the lives of police officers above those perceived as inherently criminal.

"When a group of heavily-armed people are going through your town probably announcing that their lives matter more than the lives of people of color—and essentially a thin blue line, to me, seems like the recognition that they will never be held culpable for their actions, that that line will never be crossed and that they are above the rule of law," Romero y Carver says. "When the enforcers of justice are proclaiming proudly that they are above the rule of law that makes me, as a citizen, very uncomfortable, and even more uncomfortable as a person of color."

Modern criminologists interviewed by SFR say the "Thin Blue Line" symbology and the resulting flag represent another wedge between law enforcement and the people they're supposed to serve, particularly in the current national movement against police brutality.

Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, researches policing with an emphasis on procedural justice, legitimacy and shootings by officers. He says the symbol reinforces an adversarial mentality that indoctrinates officers into a system that sees residents as dangerous.

"Really starting day one at the academy they're trained and they get it reinforced that they have to always establish control and be in charge and that every stop, every interaction, has the potential for danger," Nix says. "It's that unpredictability that helps lead officers down this path of it's 'us versus them.'…'We're the sheepdogs protecting the sheep from the wolves; that thin blue line.'"

Nix considers the symbol at odds with what Sir Robert Peel, founder of the UK's police service, reportedly said: "The police are the public and the public are the police." Nix says it's "poor judgment" to put the flag on a recruitment vehicle.

But Mendoza claims if anyone has an issue with the symbol, they should talk to deputies about how they see it.

"I don't think there's any law enforcement officer that you talk to that relates the thin blue line to any divisiveness or any separation between us and the community," Mendoza says. "Ask them what it means to them. I think that there's been a lot of twists in the narrative of what that means. I think there's a lot of people that maybe aren't in law enforcement, but have changed the original meaning of that symbol, unfortunately."

Nix doesn't buy this thinking. He tells SFR the way the flag and the "Thin Blue Line" has been used in policing, propaganda and policy-making can't be ignored.

"I just think it sends the wrong message right now," he says. "It's not the police versus the public, it's: The police are here to serve the public, assist the public. It's supposed to be a partnership, right? Community safety is a thing that we all want and aspire to achieve together. I just think the symbolism of it misses the point, and to your point about it being used at rallies and certain groups using it, I don't know if [Mendoza] just pretends not to know that or what he told you was he doesn't see it that way. Well, the truth of the matter is this is how it's been used. So I think you have to be aware of and understand how your own community might perceive it or…It seems risky to me and not worth it."

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