„Thin blue line“: German police trainer warns against radicalisation

Police sometimes see themselves as the last „blue line“ against chaos and crime. Various police stations also tweet about this self-image, which is popular among right-wing officers. Websites where police employees  also participate sell patches, mugs and shirts with the problematic symbolism.

Several German police forces published tweets about the so-called „thin blue line“ over Christmas or referred to it in a positive way. The police in Kiel made the start after an action on Christmas Eve. All windows of the middle floor of the three-storey police station near the main railway station were illuminated in dark blue. A photo published on the internet names the night shift as the originator.

The Christmas greeting with the blue line appeared on the private website „Polizist=Mensch“ (translates to „Policeman=Human Being“). After being asked about it on Twitter, the Schleswig-Holstein State Police backed the action. The night shift had wanted to make clear that the police were also available „around the clock for everyone“ during the Christmas holidays.

Popular with „Blue Lives Matter“

The symbolism of the „thin blue line“ probably originated in a battle in the Crimea in 1854. At that time, Scottish soldiers dressed in red had stopped an attack by Russian troops, which gave rise to the narrative of a „thin red line“. According to historians, the blue variation became widespread among police in the USA in the 1960s. At demonstrations, among other things, it was meant to symbolise a very thin line of defence between good and evil.

The „thin blue line“ finally became popular with the rise of Black Lives Matter and their protests against police shootings of Black people in the USA. Right-wing police officers have responded to this powerful movement with nationwide groups called „Blue Lives Matter“. They wear patches, pins or flags with a dark blue line.

Around the same time, the „thin blue line“ was introduced to the police in Germany. There, too, it is seen as „the front line against society’s slide into violent chaos“, writes the Berlin Senate in its answer to a parlamentarian question. The symbol is also said to be „used in right-wing contexts“.

„Completely shifted understanding of roles“

According to Cologne police chief inspector Felix Sengespeik, the „thin blue line“ suggests a „community of danger“. „This kind of solidarity stands for a completely shifted understanding of the role of the police,“ the police group leader comments to netzpolitik.org. In this world view, the „righteous“ population is always indebted to the police.

With the „thin blue line“, the police are stylised into a community of fate, says Björn Schmaering, a federal police officer from the board of the critical association PolizeiGrün, when asked by netzpolitik.org. „In this role, these police officers expect gratitude, respect and acceptance of police superiority. At the same time, those who criticise such a self-image are branded as nest fowlers.“

Internet sites such as „Polizist=Mensch“ prove this assessment. There, in a posting published before Christmas, it says that a person’s character can be „very well recognised by his dealings with the police“.

Police in Kiel play down „blue line“

Whether the dark blue lighting of the 4th police station in Kiel was agreed with its management could be clarified by a freedom of information request. „Our colleagues wanted to send a Christmas greeting by the blue light in the area of the police station,“ wrote the Schleswig-Holstein State Police on Twitter. According to the statement, there is no connection with „thin blue line“.

The statement that a blue line should not be interpreted as such is surprising. „The designation as Christmas lights shows in a frightening way that there seems to be no awareness of the problem in Kiel,“ criticises Björn Schmaering from PolizeiGrün. This trivialises and condones the incident.

The instructor and specialist teacher for operational law even speaks of a „radicalisation“ with regard to the „thin blue line“. In order to counter this, sensitivity and background knowledge are absolutely necessary in the police leadership.

Mannheim police deletes tweet

The police in Mannheim also made a positive reference to the dark blue symbolism on Facebook over Christmas. „Together we stand up for each other, stand together, on the ‚thin blue line‘,“ wrote a policewoman in a poem, which was subsequently posted by the moderators of „Polizist=Mensch“ with the consent of the author.

The Twitter account „HSB_Forum“, which according to its own statement is run by an employee of the Criminal Police Berlin, had raised the issue. The Mannheim police responded that they were aware of the criticism of the „thin blue line“. They understand the symbolism as a „blue light family“, which should be drawn attention to over the Christmas holidays. With the poem, which was also linked on Twitter, the police wanted to point out this „different view“.

Another, much harsher tweet, on the other hand, was deleted. In it, the authority had referred to an article on the website „Polizist=Mensch“, in which the origin and meaning of the „thin blue line“ is uncritically described. „What is recognisable in this case is the almost naïve handling of the symbolism,“ says Björn Schmaering from PolizeiGrün. The police in Mannheim are thus strengthening those parts of the police force that use the „thin blue line“ explicitly in awareness of its radical right-wing and racist meaning.

Team of police members

According to his own statement, behind the establishment of „Polizist=Mensch“, where the Christmas action of the 4th precinct in Kiel was first published, is the commissioner Markus Vogt. According to an interview from November 2018, his team at the time consisted of members of various state police forces and the Federal Police, as well as a former female soldier. The website did not respond to our questions about this.

According to Deutsche Welle, Vogt, who was employed by the police in Mainz, also worked as a moderator of the Facebook page „Solidarity with the officers of the Davidwache“ with the author Andreas Hallaschka who is popular among right-wingers. It was created in 2013 after an alleged „left-wing radical attack“ on the well-known Hamburg police station. It later turned out that the police had largely misrepresented the incident. Hallaschka also uses the hashtag #thinblueline and describes this as „politically neutral“.

Merchandise with „thin blue line“

The distribution of „thin blue line“ also serves a market in Germany. Websites like „Polizist=Mensch“ sell posters, shirts or mugs printed with a dark blue line via an online mail order service. „Tribute cop-car Germany“ has set up an even more professional internet shop. „We have been actively bringing The Thin Blue Line to Europe since 2016,“ is the mission statement. Police officers and others can buy dozens of bracelets, jewellery, patches and other devotional items there. Material with a red line is also sold, which is aimed at fire brigades.

The group, whose imprint lists car dealer Olaf Bach for „Volunteerism and Organisation“, likes to present itself with a former US police vehicle in order to „increase the appreciation of the police profession on this side of the Atlantic Ocean“. Five days before Christmas, Bach had organised the #BlueLightNight campaign for the fifth time, following the US model, in which police, fire brigades and rescue services drove with blue lights outside two children’s hospitals in North Rhine-Westphalia. The Federal Criminal Police Office also took part, with the flashing emergency vehicles the agency wanted to put „a smile on the children’s faces“.

„Tribute cop-car Germany“, according to its own statement, does not belong to any authority, but supporters „partly come from relevant professions“. In any case, the authorities have no fear of contact with the private website. Several police Twitter accounts have reacted with „likes“ to a conversation containing a Christmas greeting decorated with „thin blue line“ symbols. Among them are the Federal Police and the police in Saxony.

Image: Operations control centre of the Mainz police, where the founder of the private website „Polizist=Mensch“ was employed (Mainz Police on Twitter).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.