Dealing with a symbol divides German security authorities: Is the “Thin Blue Line” recognition of the use of police officers for other people or is it increasingly an expression of a right-wing attitude?

It is a poem with six stanzas that causes problems for an employee of the Mannheim police shortly after Christmas 2021.

“The service is tough, the night is long, but with the colleagues together, it doesn’t get scary,” the administrative officer wrote on Christmas Eve on the official Facebook account of the police headquarters. «Together we stand up for each other, stand together, on the “Thin blue line”.»

Later, the last line of the poem disappears, and the employee is invited to a “sensitization talk”. Because the “Thin Blue Line”, a thin blue line mostly on a black background, is taboo as a symbol in the police service. Some countries also advise investigators against wearing it in their free time – because the symbol could indicate a right-wing or even anti-democratic attitude.

Origin: “Thin Red Line” marching formation

According to the Bavarian State Criminal Police Office, the symbol probably came from the military designation “Thin Red Line” for a marching formation during the Crimean War in the middle of the 19th century. In the 20th century, the “Thin Blue Line” was used again and again in the context of the police in the USA – as a sign of solidarity with investigators killed in the line of duty, but also as a symbol of a last line between civilization and anarchy.

In an “information letter” for police officers in the Free State, which is available to the German Press Agency, the Bavarian State Criminal Police Office writes of a clear distinction between the population and the symbol – in righteous citizens and “criminals”. In addition, there is an “appropriation by extremist circles” with the “Thin Blue Line”. The letter does not reveal which persons or groups are specifically meant by these circles. Outsiders could get “doubts about the neutrality, objectivity and impartiality” of officials wearing the symbol.

AfD faction leader Alice Weidel on the “thin blue line”

The police as the last line of defense against chaos – the AfD faction leader in the Bundestag, Alice Weidel, also expressed this view in 2018 in the weekly newspaper “Junge Freiheit”: “The police officers who protect the citizens and enforce law and order are the ones “thin blue line” separating civilization from anarchy. If we let that line break, chaos is not far away.”

With similar arguments, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement in the USA also used the symbol – as an explicit counter-movement to “Black Lives Matter”. During the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, demonstrators also used flags with the “Thin Blue Line”.

Nevertheless, some officers continue to see the blue line primarily as a sign of belonging to the “police family”. “It is a sign of sympathy and solidarity for colleagues injured or killed on duty,” says the chairman of the police union (GdP) in Bavaria, Peter Pytlik. “We as GdP Bayern continue to see the symbol as a sign of a community of solidarity.” But you use it “only very sparingly to prevent misunderstandings or misinterpretations”.

Handling of symbol differs at country level

In other countries, too, there were sometimes few clear lines in the way the police dealt with the symbol. In 2019, for example, the state association of the GdP in Saarland procured patches with the “Thin Blue Line” for police officers in the state, which the Ministry of the Interior in Saarbrücken then banned from wearing – due to concerns about the neutrality requirement. The state board of the union then described this as “more than regrettable”. The “special opinion” on the ban would “better not be published”.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the state police announced that they were distancing themselves “in any form from the use of all symbols with political meaning, especially those associated with the right-wing narrative”. If police officers used the symbol on duty, an official examination follows.

When a Kiel police station illuminated one floor of the building as a blue line during a Christmas party, this did not result in any legal consequences. “According to the police department in Kiel, the action had not been discussed with superiors in advance,” said a police spokesman. The incident was later “intensively worked up internally”, with all those responsible there were “sometimes several relevant discussions”.

Wearing a symbol can have consequences

In February 2021, the police in Berlin even published a photo of an officer wearing a “Thin Blue Line” patch via Twitter. A police spokesman said that wearing such signs is “regularly not permitted and can have legal consequences”. There are no indications of disciplinary proceedings because of the “Thin Blue Line” in Berlin. It is possible that such processes have already been destroyed after a ban on exploitation. Therefore, no information can be given about the details of the case.

Disciplinary proceedings against police officers because of the “Thin Blue Line” have been a rarity anyway. According to a survey of the state criminal police, the federal police and customs, such a case is currently only being examined in Hamburg.

“From our point of view, there are not always legal consequences necessary,” says Björn Schmaering, who deals with the “Thin Blue Line” at the Police Green professional association. «But the sensitivity regarding the symbol has apparently not yet reached the authorities. And it’s just naive to show yourself with such a symbol if you don’t know the meaning.”

In the case of the poem by the Mannheim police officer, there were no disciplinary proceedings either. The employee did not know the controversial meaning of the term, said a spokesman for the police headquarters. “But it’s definitely a term we shouldn’t be using. Police must be neutral.” The last line in the poem reads like this: “Together we stand up for each other and hopefully we’ll all come home safe and sound.”