Following the Calgary Police Association’s repeated calls for members to defy an order from the Calgary Police Commission, the city’s “civilian oversight” body, to remove thin blue line symbols from their uniforms, the Calgary Police Service (CPS) has announced that it will not reprimand officers who continue to wear it.
Concerns over the thin blue line patch, a black-and-white Canadian flag bisected by a horizontal blue stripe, were initially raised in 2021. The patch is not an official part of their uniform, but officers were permitted to wear it while the Commission conducted a review.
The review took place over a period of twelve months and ultimately directed officers to remove the patch from their uniforms. Commission Chair Shawn Cornett stated that “people in our community have clearly expressed that the thin blue line patch on police officers makes them uncomfortable.”
The original version of the thin blue line symbol, which depicts a black-and-white American flag, has been enthusiastically adopted by the far right. The symbol arose in response to the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, as a symbol of support for the police in opposition to those standing up against racist police brutality. The idea behind it is that the police are the “thin blue line” standing between societal order and chaos. It means glorifying racist cops and denying the violence they inflict on racialized people.
In 2017, a thin blue line flag was spotted amongst the Confederate flags at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was also flown by the people who stormed the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The Proud Boys, who have now been designated a terrorist entity by the federal government, displayed the American thin blue line flag at a Black Lives Matter rally in Calgary in 2020. While as of now there are no documented cases of the far right using the Canadian version, it was inspired by and is almost identical to the American symbol. It’s clearly connected to far-right extremism and police brutality apologists.
After the commission announced its decision, John Orr, president of the Calgary Police Association wrote, “We encourage each and every one of you to wear this important symbol in defiance of the order from the commission.”
In doing so, the CPS has flouted a direct order from its civilian oversight body. Neufeld has acknowledged that the commission provided “lawful direction to the service.” But apparently, legality does not apply to police officers! The commission, which is made up of ten civilian volunteers and two city councillors, is empowered by the Alberta Police Act “to establish policies providing for efficient and effective policing” and “to issue instructions as necessary to the Chief in regards to those policies.”
Clearly, the police association and the police have no regard for civilian oversight. The commission also seems to recognize its own impotence. Despite taking a full year to reach its decision, the commission has decided to support the CPS in ignoring its order. This demonstrates clearly that the attempt to maintain “civilian oversight” of the CPS is useless. If they can’t prevent officers from wearing a racist symbol on their uniforms, how can they be expected to address more severe instances of racism?
It’s not surprising that some officers have refused to remove the patches, as racism within the CPS is well documented.
A recent example of this came on Feb. 19, 2022, when CPS officers murdered Latjor Tuel. The officers were responding to a report that a man was brandishing a weapon. The “weapon” was a retractable cane that Tuel used to walk. Tuel had mental health issues, primarily PTSD due to his experiences as a child soldier in Sudan. However, there were no attempts to de-escalate the situation and police immediately set a dog upon him. Tuel hit the dog to defend himself, and the police shot him four times. A CPS statement initially claimed that officers engaged in life saving measures, but a video later revealed that was false.
Clearly, bodies like the Calgary Police Commission are not sufficient to address systemic racism in the CPS. But the problem would not be rectified by a less impotent civilian oversight body. If the police choose to disregard an order, who will enforce it? The moral authority of the commission? And further, no oversight body has the ability to simply vanquish racism within the police. Racism is systemic and penetrates all of society. According to the Calgary Homeless Foundation over 40 per cent the homeless population of the city are Indigenous. People of colour are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. These broad social ills self-perpetuate, as under capitalism, there is no such thing as equality of opportunity.
The function of the police is ultimately to defend current property relations, that is, defend the interests of the ruling class. That means that it is fundamentally a tool to hold down the oppressed and exploited in the interests of the rich and powerful. There can be all the civilian oversight in the world, but oversight will not change the interests that the police serve. To put an end to racist and abusive police, we need to overthrow their capitalist masters.