By: Olivia Visser
Content warning: police brutality, racism, and anti-Indigenous violence
Amid calls for police accountability, the thin blue line patch has emerged as the subject of heated debate. Police, even those in Vancouver, argue the symbol represents innocent camaraderie among police officers, but a growing number recognize the badge for what it is: a symbol for a dynamic that pits officers against their communities.
The thin blue line patch represents the role some officers feel they play in society. The line, representing the police, is intended to serve as a bulwark between order and chaos. It’s a manifestation of a problematic type of policing — one in which cops view themselves as soldiers fighting a war, and where attempts at holding police accountable are seen as impediments to the “war” effort.
The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) is, sadly, still mired in thin blue line-type narratives. In a recent Vancouver Police Board meeting, police chief Adam Palmer responded to a complaint about an on-duty officer wearing the thin blue line patch, saying the “patch has a deep-rooted meaning with police officers.” Palmer explained many officers view the patch as a way to connect with their community and respect coworkers who died in the line of duty.
Except it’s not that. Others — even other officers — disagree with Palmer. In March, the Calgary Police Commission (CPC) issued a directive to discontinue the use of the thin blue line patch while on duty. Their statement acknowledged the symbol “has a contentious history with roots in division, colonialism, and racism.” The CPC is right.
The Northwest Mounted Police was created to control Indigenous peoples and establish colonial rule over Western Canada. This is a history we should be acknowledging and policing is a a strain of law enforcement that should be actively held accountable. The CPC’s acknowledgment of policing’s colonial history is only a small starting point for adequately policing all Canadians, but it’s still ahead of Vancouver’s weak stance on the problematic patch.
The thin blue line upholds an “us versus them” dichotomy between police and community members. It tells citizens that officers are serving their own interests when they should be acting within the best interests of those they work to protect. It’s a violation of an already volatile power dynamic.
When the thin blue line appears as a response to activism supporting historically marginalized groups, it suggests that officers don’t view themselves on the same side as social justice. Case in point is the police response to Indigenous activists. Last June, RCMP officers were seen wearing the patch at old-growth logging protests despite official orders not to. In July, Saint John police officers were criticized for wearing it at a demonstration against residential schools. How are you supposed to trust someone with your life when they display on-duty support for an ideology that dismisses the violence it commits?
It’s not just in response to marginalized communities standing up to themselves. Police abuse is an everyday issue. Adjusted for population, a CTV News analysis found that 1.5 out of every 100,000 Indigenous peoples had been killed by the police since 2017, compared with 0.13 out of every 100,000 white Canadians. Indigenous citizens are also grossly overrepresented in Canada’s prison population, which pokes a hole in the country’s peacekeeping façade.
The thin blue line is not simply an ideological slogan — it’s representative of real systemic corruption. With incredibly strong unions that often act against public interests, police officers have the freedom to abuse their power. One study from York University found that Canadian police unions are contradictory because they “contribute to entrenching police as a (relatively) privileged sector of the working class.” Because police already have elevated rights and responsibilities compared to other laborers, allowing them to unionize only upholds their inflated privilege by giving them a legal advantage over regular citizens.
A CBC News investigation found that of 461 fatal police encounters over 18 years, only two ended with an officer being convicted. Attorney and past police officer James Lowry said that as an internal investigator, most officers were reluctant to disclose any information that would put a coworker at risk of criminal charges. This suggests a huge problem in the way officers are situated within the criminal justice system. It’s also emblematic of the way a “thin blue line” mentality manifests itself in concrete policy: police are protected because of the nature of their jobs; fighting a domestic war.
The thin blue line underlines a disconnect between community values and policing agendas. To visibly marginalized groups, the symbol is an affront to the historical and continued victimization that their communities live with. If the police want to improve public trust, they should begin by abandoning the thin blue line.