'Thin blue line:' What it is and why it's sparking outrage in wake of shooting death of Edmonton police officers

A closer look at the devisive relationship the public and law enforcement have with the thin blue line

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is drawing criticism after sharing a post commemorating the lives of two Edmonton police officers killed in the line of duty last week contained a thin blue line over the police crest.

The thin blue line symbol is most commonly depicted as a black and white Canadian flag with a solid blue line across the centre, symbolic of the line officers walk between life and death while serving.

Worn mostly by law enforcement and their family members, those who don the symbol say it stands for solidarity and pride within a dangerous profession and as a means to honour fallen officers.

However, following the Black Lives Matter protests which swept across the United States in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of police officers during May 2020, the thin blue line is viewed by many as associated with racism and an us vs. them mentality.

What is the history of the blue line?

The first reference of thin blue line in policing was by New York police commissioner Richard Enright during 1922 in response to criticism he was facing for his leadership.

The term gained popularity during the 1950's, when a short-lived TV show titled The Thin Blue Line offered viewers an inside glimpse of the Los Angeles Police Department operations.

Directed by the force's chief, William H. Parker was known for his unambiguous racism. In his speeches, he would say immigrants were "not far removed from the wild tribes of Mexico," and compared Black residents who would protest his own department's mistreatment "monkeys in a zoo."

Parker's view of policing was to protect Western civilization from communists, minorities or anyone who did not meet his world view.

The term gained notoriety again during 1988 following the release of Erroll Morris' documentary The Thin Blue Line, centred around the trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the 1976 shooting of Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood.

Thin Blue Line in Canada

Over the past several years, many police forces across Canada have banned officers from wearing the thin blue line while on duty due to the adoption of the symbol by far right groups.

In 2020, the RCMP announced a ban on the wearing of the thin blue line patches on officer's clothing. Ottawa police and Vancouver police followed suit.

Last year, the Calgary Police Commission announced a directive to replace the thin blue line with a symbol that better reflected the values of Calgarians.

“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,” wrote Shawn Cornett, Chair of the Calgary Police Commission in a statement.

The decision to replace the symbol followed a two-year consultation period, which included conversations between Calgary's two police associations and the service's Anti-Racism Action Committee.

Following the consultation period, it was determined the thin blue line fails to reflect a fundamental principal in Canadian policing which is "“the police are the public and the public are the police.”

The symbol 'has no place in Canada,' readers say

Social media users called out Poilievre over the weekend for promoting a symbol deemed by many as racist.

"The thin blue line has no place in Canada, much less from a politician seeking to lead the country," tweeted one user.

Another pointed out that the deaths of two officers in the line of duty was not a time to share the symbol.

Ottawa police officers are also facing criticism after officers were spotted wearing the thin blue line symbol at a charity hockey game over the weekend.

A spokesperson for the police says the jerseys were provided by the Ottawa Police Association and officers are not allowed to wear it on their uniforms.

The association is defending the use of the symbol, saying they believe it is a way to honour officers who have died on the job.