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Police, Springfield Township Agree to Injunction on Thin Blue Line Flag Ban

After police filed a lawsuit over Springfield Township’s ban on the thin blue line American flag symbol, the township has agreed to an injunction. As a result, the ban will not take effect.

The Fraternal Order of Police Pennsylvania Lodge, the Springfield Township Police Benevolent Association, and three officers filed the suit against the township and its board of commissioners individually.

The plaintiffs asked a judge for an emergency temporary restraining order, followed by an injunction, so they can keep the flag. Officers feared retaliation, including losing their jobs, if they did not comply with the resolution. Federal Judge Karen Marston issued an order on Wednesday after both sides agreed to the injunction.

“We are very pleased,” said Wally Zimolong, attorney for the police. “The resolution is blatantly unconstitutional as re-enforced by decades of Supreme Court precedent. But it is unfortunate that it took a federal lawsuit to halt its implementation.”

On Jan. 11, the board voted 5-2 to ban the display of the flag on township property, from police uniforms, or on their bodies (tattoos) while on duty, and on any township property in the Montgomery County community.

The PBA uses the thin blue line American flag as its logo.

While the thin blue line flag is widely recognized as a symbol of support for police, especially for fallen officers, some say it symbolizes hate or oppression. And some white supremacist groups have flown the flag as well.

Residents espoused both sides of the issue during discussions at township meetings, but those who opposed the flag carried the day.

In the lawsuit, the police claimed the township’s ban is a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech and also their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

The ban is” blatantly unconstitutional,” the suit said. “It defiles bedrock First Amendment principles reiterated by a legion of Supreme Court cases.”

“These First Amendment protections are not diluted for speech that some might find offensive, distasteful, or controversial,” the suit said. And governments, including municipal governments, cannot ban speech.

“The Thin Blue Line flag is clearly entitled to First Amendment protection,” the suit argues. “Flags have been used to convey messages from almost the beginning of civilization. The Thin Blue Line flag is no different. Less than a year ago, the Third Circuit recognized that it carries and expresses a political, social, cultural, and symbolic meaning (in a case out of Boston).”

“The Thin Blue Line flag has come to represent a show of support for and solidarity with members of law enforcement, which includes police officers. Through a resolution at its national conference, the Fraternal Order of Police have affirmed its support for the use of the Thin Blue Line flag by law enforcement and the communities they protect,” according to the suit.

The Pennsylvania FOP “believes that the Thin Blue Line flag represents the preservation of the rule of law, the protection of peace and freedom, the sacrifice of fallen law enforcement officers and the dedication of law enforcement officers.”

The Springfield PBA also believes that the Thin Blue Line flag represents the same things.

Springfield PBA displays this logo on its website and “it displays the logo at fundraisers, events supporting Springfield PBA, and merchandise.”

“Moreover, its members display, depict, install, affix, or use the Thin Blue Line flag on pins, buttons, articles of clothing, and items affixed to personal belongings, such as bumper stickers and patches. Many members of the Springfield PBA wear a rubber replacement wedding ring that displays and depicts the Thin Blue Line flag,” the suit said.

Also, “defendants do not hide that at least one of their motivations for banning the Thin Blue Line flag is because it “represent[s] opposition to racial justice movements, including the Black Lives Matter cause.”

“That certain members of the public may view the Thin Blue Line flag negatively scarcely helps the constitutionality of the (Springfield) resolution. If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,” the suit notes.

Asked to comment, Commissioners President James Lee declined, instead referring to the video of the BOC meeting where the resolution was adopted.

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Law Enforcement Affronted by Thin Blue Line Flag Removal

In his years 55 years in law enforcement no one ever said they wanted to become a police officer to shoot someone, said Mike Chitwood.

Whenever he interviewed an applicant for the police force, he asked them why they want to be a police officer. Almost all said it was to help people, said Chitwood, the former Upper Darby police chief.

In a speech Monday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President Joe Biden said, “We have to retrain cops. Why should you always shoot with deadly force? The cat is, if you need to use your weapon, you don’t have to do that.”

Chitwood defended the practice, saying it was necessary to shoot to kill an armed attacker for an officer’s protection.

All officers are trained to use deadly force, he said.

“If you need to defend your life or someone else’s, you use deadly force,” said Chitwood. Otherwise, officers are likely to be killed or seriously injured themselves. “You don’t try to shoot someone in the hand,” he said.

Biden’s remarks are the latest blow to law enforcement officers, who seem to be under siege across the country and in the Delaware Valley.

Last week, in Springfield Township, Montgomery County, the township commissioners voted to ban the thin blue line flag– which represents law enforcement protecting the community and honors fallen officers–from township premises, including not allowing any tattoos to be visible during work hours. Critics of the symbol say that some white supremacists have adopted it therefore it’s offensive.

However, the thin blue line American flag is a symbol used by the Springfield Police Benevolent Association (PBA), which twice voted to keep it after being approached by the commissioners and asked to change their logo.

Springfield BOC President James Lee did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. A lawyer representing the PBA also could not be reached, and the PBA did not respond to requests for comment.

Days later, the Los Angeles police chief also banned the thin blue line flag after just one person complained.

Tom Hogan, a former Chester County prosecutor, said, “There was a war on cops. It is mostly over. The other side won. It will take about a decade to begin to recover. Welcome back to the ‘70s.”

Frank Clayton, a retired Trenton detective, said on Facebook after the Springfield vote, “I am so offended…It will never end. They let the genie out of the bottle.”

The former Yeadon police chief, Anthony “Chachi” Paparo, said, “It’s a symbol of camaraderie amongst the police. It’s a cherished symbol amongst the police. It’s an identifier for us. At the end of the day, it’s sad. We’re losing humanity among ourselves. There‘s much more to be worried about than taking a flag away. We need to bring humanity back into our lives.”

Chitwood called the removal of the thin blue flag “a disgrace.”

“There is nothing racist about that flag,” Chitwood said. “It shows support for the police. Look at the number of officers shot, and (they’ve) got to cancel that flag? It’s an absolute disgrace.”

In the U.S., 229 officers died in the line of duty in 2022 and 669 in 2021, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. 

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