A wooden American flag adorned with a thin blue line – and the object’s place on government property – has sparked an angry debate in Maryland over police-community relations, pitting elected leaders in liberal Montgomery County against Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
The flag is seen by some as a symbol of respect for law enforcement, and others as a rebuke of the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2013 to bring attention to police shootings of unarmed African Americans. It has long been used to evoke the role of police in keeping order. But it has been co-opted by the Blue Lives Matter movement, a pro-police effort to counter Black Lives Matter.
On Oct. 28, National First Responders Day, a “thin blue line” flag was donated to the 5th District police station in Germantown, Maryland, by a resident – identified by police as James Shelton – and his young son. County police said on Twitter that the flag would be displayed at the station.
The gesture generated immediate blowback, with critics saying the flag excuses police violence against black residents. Some noted it was seen along with Confederate flags at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Responding to the controversy,
, D, said the flag would not be publicly displayed at the police department.
“The flag provides a symbol of support to some but it is a symbol of dismissiveness to others,” he said in a statement Friday. “Under my administration, we are committed to improving police relations with the community and will immediately address any action that stands against our mission.”
On Sunday, Hogan waded in, writing that he was “offended and disgusted” by Elrich’s decision. “To outlaw these American flags from being hung in county buildings by law enforcement officers is outrageous and unconscionable,” he tweeted with photos of himself in front of two of the flags. “. . . We are proud to hang these Thin Blue Line flags in Government House to honor our brave law enforcement officers.”
Elrich said he plans to meet with the county’s police union, which said over the weekend it was “highly offended” by his order. But he does not plan to reverse his decision.
“I’m not listening to Governor Hogan,” Elrich said in an interview Monday. “And particularly not on something like this, where he doesn’t understand the ramifications on the community.”
A staunch liberal who took office this year, Elrich has had a tense relationship with the police department. At the start of what has been an unusually protracted search for a new police chief, Elrich announced he was seeking an outside candidate and would not consider acting police chief Marcus Jones, a veteran officer in the department and the early choice of the rank-and-file. In September, he retracted the statement.
The Montgomery County Council will consider the nomination of Jones on Tuesday.
Elrich is a proponent of the county’s ambitious racial equity legislation, which is under review, and has expressed concern about recent allegations of police misconduct. In July, a Montgomery officer was charged with assault after allegedly using his shin to force a man’s head into the ground during an arrest. In May, an officer was caught on video using a racial slur. Last year, an officer fatally shot an unarmed man in Silver Spring, Maryland. Prosecutors ruled that shooting justified.
“I get both sides of this,” Elrich said about the flag dispute. “But at this particular moment, we’re trying to deal with racial tensions and issues around the police department.
“To have the racial tensions heightened over something like [the flag], I did not think it would be productive. We’re trying to unwind ourselves here.”
Officer Rick Goodale, a police spokesman, said the donated flag is at the 5th District station but is not being publicly displayed. “We’re the police department, we’re going along with what the county executive wants,” Goodale said. “This is all his decision.”
Activists and liberal politicians applauded Elrich’s decision.
“This is not the American flag,” Del. Gabriel Acevero, D-Montgomery, tweeted. “It’s a violation of the flag code that prohibits altering of the flag in this manner & an affront to the #BlackLivesMatter protests that I & others were a part of.”
Laurel Hoa, co-founder of Montgomery’s chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, said the flag “devalues the lives of black people . . . and has no place in any government building.”
Shelton, the resident who donated the flag, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He and his son also donated a version of the wooden flag with a red stripe to Fire Station 31 on Darnestown Road in North Potomac, Maryland. A spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service said the department had not received any similar pushback and that the flag is on display at the firehouse.
Elrich said he sees no issue with the fire station’s flag, because he does not believe it has been co-opted by other political movements.
Photo Credit: Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. (betterDCregion)
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. (Maryland GovPics)