„Thin Blue Line“: German police divided on extremist iconography

An internal paper of the Bavarian Police problematises a symbol which stands for a conspiratorial community of solidarity. According to the paper, it is widespread in right-wing police circles and could violate the principle of neutrality and lead to disciplinary consequences. Not all police officers see it that way.

Earlier this year I reported on the handling of the so-called „Thin Blue Line“ (TBL) within the German police. For many officers, the symbol of this thin blue line on a black background signifies the protection of society from crime, violence and chaos, which, according to this reading, only they could provide. Others want it to be understood as a sign of solidarity and recognition of injured and killed colleagues. What all the different interpretations have in common is that the police see themselves as a conspiratorial community of solidarity.

The article was prompted by renewed statements by police authorities, in this case from Schleswig-Holstein and Rhineland-Palatinate, which referred positively to the blue and black symbolism over Christmas. The police in Mannheim subsequently deleted a corresponding tweet.

Merchandising website closed

The much-read post caused just as much furore. Other media such as the Amadeu Antonio Foundation’s Belltower magazine have also reported. A website set up by a police officer, which repeatedly portrayed the TBL in a positive light and sold corresponding merchandising, was closed down by the operator a week later. The reasons are not named in a farewell posting, but the man worked for the police in Mainz, perhaps he was urged to do so by his department or colleagues.

The police in Bavaria also read the article, as evidenced by an „information offer“ I received from the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) in Munich on the use of the TBL on 31 March. The eleven-page paper was written by the „Strategic Innovation Centre“ department and refers to the my findings in several places.

First of all, it describes the origin of the symbol in the USA and its appropriation by right-wing circles in the USA and Germany. It also discusses the right-wing movement „Blue Lives Matter“, which was founded by US police officers as a conscious counter-movement to „Black Lives Matter“.

„InstaCops“ promote acceptance of police violence

In 2016, a Facebook group called „Thin Blue Line Germany“ was started. Since then, police officers have also been on the move on Instagram under the hashtag #InstaCops. An article in our German magazine CILIP describes how authoritarian and right-wing narratives contribute to the acceptance of unlawful police violence there.

The TBL is associated with a „symbolic content that is partly historically justified, but also stems from its appropriation by extremist circles“, summarises the LKA in Munich under the heading „Why caution is absolutely necessary when using the ‚Thin Blue Line‘ symbol“ in the last chapter. According to this, it could violate the neutrality requirement and lead to consequences under service law.

As possible violations, the draft mentions the use on uniforms and means of deployment, as jewellery or in the signature of the official email account. This applies „especially because of the protest character that the symbol also embodies“.

Officials obliged to neutrality and temperance

The use of the symbol outside the service is also described as „not entirely unproblematic“, for example as patches, badges, flags or printed T-shirts worn at events. This also applies to the use of TBL as a hashtag on private accounts on Twitter or Instagram.

In both cases, however, the context and the underlying motivation „must be assessed in each individual case“ in order to assess this „off-duty use“ under service law, the paper explains. Although freedom of expression must be taken into account, civil servants also have a duty of neutrality and temperance.

In the population, for example, the distinction induced by the TBL between law-abiding citizens and „criminals“ could raise doubts about the objectivity and impartiality of the police’s performance of their duties.

GdP vs. DPolG

However, there is no clear ban on the use of the TBL in Bavaria. It is therefore questionable what the LKA’s „information offer“ is supposed to achieve. That it can be done differently is shown by the Union of German Police (GdP), which was still enthusiastic about the symbolism in 2019 and wrote in its membership magazine that the federal executive board had „set the signals to green for the production of the patch“. A directive from the Federal Ministry of the Interior not to wear the patches on uniforms was commented on by the regional executive board in Saarland at the time, saying that it had a „special opinion on the matter, which it is better not to publish here“.

Later, however, the GdP did a U-turn. The federal executive board has been „sceptical about the action for a long time“, the reason given to me was „in particular the shocking incident surrounding the death of the US-American George Floyd and subsequent developments“, as well as the handling of the hashtag #BlueLivesMatter.

The fact that the GdP, which is considered to be rather social-democratic, refrained from participating could be seen as a challenge by the often boorish, right wing Police Union (DPolG). The Cologne branch showed itself demonstratively on Twitter with a US police sports car from the car dealer „tributecopcar.de“. According to its founder, he was responsible for the introduction of the „Thin Blue Line“ in Germany from 2016. Since then, German police officers have been supplied with plenty of wristbands, flags, mugs and patches with the symbol via the website.

Image: Police Osterode.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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