Can Montreal police use their uniforms to make political statements?
The question comes after an officer was photographed wearing a “thin blue line” patch on his department-issued flak jacket Monday, sparking a debate about whether it is ethical or even legal for officers to wear given its association with right-wing populism. The logo features a black and grey Canadian flag with a blue stripe running across it. Ricochet reported on a similar “Blue Lives Matter” patch on an officer’s uniform during an intervention in March, and other photos of officers wearing the badges have been posted to social media over the last month.
Given two days to explain their stance on the controversial patches, the Montreal police did not provide a comment to Ricochet.
The RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and Ottawa Police Services have all ordered their constables not to wear the slogan while on the job. Officers have a duty to appear non-partisan while serving the public, the OPP said in a statement announcing the decision last year.
- Police intervention highlights broken system for responding to mental health crises
- Investigating police misconduct: Ricochet wins 2021 Michener-Deacon Fellowship
- INVESTIGATION: Montreal journalists face police intimidation, brutality when reporting at protests
Whether it was originally intended to be or not, the thin blue line is an overtly political symbol in the U.S. and Canada. Congress is debating the Thin Blue Line Act, which makes killing a police officer an aggravating factor in death penalty cases.
An offshoot of the “All Lives Matter” slogan that has been popularized as a negation of the Black Lives Matter movement, “Blue Lives Matter” and the thin blue line flag are perceived by many, if not most, people of colour as racist symbols that celebrate the abuses of police officers accused of misconduct.
Marlihan Lopez, who works with BLM Montreal, referred to the patches as “a provocation” but said the larger issue is that policing, as an institution, perpetuates violence against Black and Indigenous people.
Province unsure if it’s legal for officers to wear the patches
The thin blue line symbol is an adaptation of the American design embraced by supporters of former U.S. president Donald Trump.
Dozens of thin blue line flags flew during the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots in Washington, D.C. Five people, including one police officer, were killed that day.
“I don’t think (the flag) should have been used during the Capitol Hill riots,” said Sean Hadley, who sells thin blue line apparel in Canada. “Anyone using it in this manner should be called out as this is not what it represents.”
Hadley is an active-duty Quebec police officer who founded Thin Blue Line Canada five years ago. He says the symbol is meant to honour officers who died in the line of duty and to symbolize the line between “good and evil, peace and chaos.”
Critics of the design say it oversimplifies the causes of crime and fosters an “us vs. them” mentality within police departments.
The Quebec government had no issue limiting the free expression of police in 2019, when it adopted Bill 21. The law forbids officers from displaying any symbol of their religious faith while on duty.
But when it comes to a symbol linked to right-wing nationalism, the province isn’t sure what can or can’t be enforced. When asked whether the thin blue line flag constitutes a political ideology, a representative for the public security minister consulted Quebec’s Police Act.
“It says a lot about what sort of materials can be used in uniforms — fabric pants, a leather belt — but nothing about symbols,” the representative said, reading directly from the legislation. “The best people to ask would be the Montreal police.”
The Montreal police were given two days to comment but repeatedly asked for more time to come up with a statement. They ultimately did not provide one.
Alex Norris, the head of Montreal’s public safety committee, said he would prefer to allow the police to comment on it first. The committee oversees policing in Montreal.
Hadley says that efforts by police departments to ban the thin blue line symbol have actually helped his website’s sales. When the RCMP ordered officers not to wear the patch last year, Hadley says he saw an unprecedented rise in business.
“Many of the purchases I received were made by sergeants buying large quantities for their entire platoon,” he said. The sergeants “are technically the ones who are supposed to be enforcing this ban.”
The union representing the RCMP said it will defend any constable reprimanded for wearing the patch. A representative for the Montreal police fraternity did not respond to our calls and text messages.
Liberal MP wants cops included in hate crimes laws
Also this week, Winnipeg Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux sponsored a petition to the House of Commons by retired Winnipeg police officer Stan Tataryn that calls on Parliament to categorize police officers as an “identifiable group” for the purposes of hate crimes legislation.
The petition’s author wants the government to add “vocation” to “the identifiable groups against which hatred cannot be publicly directed in word or form.”
This change to hate crimes laws has been the primary demand of the U.S. Blue Lives Matter group, and they succeeded in having such a law passed in Louisiana in 2016 — an effort denounced by most major U.S. civil rights groups.
"There’s a great deal of merit for us to give more positive attention to law enforcement officers,” Lamoureux told the Winnipeg Free Press. “When it comes to law enforcement personnel, it takes just a few bad apples to portray a relatively negative image, and it's not fair.”
Tataryn told the newspaper that making it a hate crime to be rude to a police officer would make them less likely to violently injure civilians. “Constant, derogatory hatred towards the police makes them start to doubt they have that authority, and they'll go quicker to their weapon, or toward force.”
The petition only has a couple hundred signatures, and is unlikely to be accepted by the government, but advocates are concerned that an MP with the governing Liberal Party is pushing such a measure, particularly due to the timing.
There have been a number of protests and vigils over the last week for Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old Indigenous girl who was shot and killed by a Winnipeg police officer. An investigation done by CBC in 2018 found that almost 60 per cent of people killed by the police in Manitoba since 2000 have been Indigenous. At the time of the 2016 census, only 18 per cent of Manitoba residents were Indigenous. Paula Ethans, a human rights lawyer in Winnipeg, took to Twitter to call out Lamoureux’s efforts as “legally and morally wrong.”
“Police are not a group, legally. There needs to be an inherent trait. Think: sexual orientation, race, disability, gender, etc. Something you can’t change. A cop can quit tomorrow if they want — they can change their job.”
There is no such thing as hate speech towards police officers, Ethans argued, but rather “criticism, scrutiny and accountability.” Curtailing the ability to criticize the police, she warned, would be an anti-democratic assault on fundamental Charter Rights.
‘Worrisome that police would feel that empowered’
Lopez says the thin blue line controversy reminds her of a decision by Quebec’s provincial police to show solidarity with colleagues accused of sexually assaulting Indigenous women in Val-d’Or. Officers across the region wore bracelets and used other pressure tactics to protest an investigation of their colleagues.
At the time, Lopez worked with a network of rape crisis centres, including one in Val-d'Or, and she said that those bracelets were part of an effort by police to discredit the victims of sexual assault.
Montreal police have a well-documented history of racial profiling within their ranks. A 2019 study that examined three years of police data found Montreal officers are 4.6 times more likely to stop an Indigenous person for a “street check” than they are to stop a white person. Meanwhile, Black people were 4.2 times more likely to be stopped.
For his part, Hadley says he has no problem with management deciding what officers should wear while serving. He went on to blame the controversy over thin blue line patches on “cancel culture.” He says the design is meant to be inclusive and cited a version of the patch that features the Pride flag to honour the LGBTQ2S community.
“Thin blue line is not going anywhere,” he said.