Fault Lines
17 August 2017

Why Mandatory “Thin Blue Line” Stickers Won’t Win Hearts and Minds

March 3, 2017 (Fault Lines) — I grew up in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. I still vividly recall Orland Park’s water tower – painted like a white golf ball perched upon a green tee. In huge block letters, it announced GOLF CENTER OF THE WORLD. Wow. Even as a little boy, I was skeptical of that claim. But whatever; it was just a water tower.

The Village of Orland Park is in the spotlight this week. Mayor Dan McLaughlin announced the new village vehicle sticker design: “Orland Park Supports Police” over a grayscale American flag with a blue line running horizontal through the middle. The mayor was quoted in a press release:

We want our local police and law enforcement across the country to know that Orland Park supports them…Police officers on all levels have had a hard time these past few years and it’s time for people to thank them for their service.

American municipalities can require each and every motor vehicle registered within city limits to display a sticker bought from the municipality, in addition to state registration/license plates. (In Orland Park, a typical passenger car sticker runs $30 and is valid for three years). Some local governments merely change the color of a logo every year; others run design contests for grade-school children.

This story comes on the heels of a similar controversy in Kentucky last week. In Cattlesburg, the police chief was pressured by local outcry to remove decals from his department’s squad cars. The design on the car hoods portrayed the Punisher™ logo and “Blue Lives Matter,” complete with The Thin Blue Line motif.

Now I share as much adoration for Blue Lives Matter as I do for Black Lives Matter – which is to say none at all. They’re both unnecessarily divisive in a time when our country needs unification. Even in the limited times I display Thin Blue Line iconography, it’s discreet and private. I’ve also been an outspoken critic of Blue Lives Matter hate crime legislation; not because of the inclusion of the term, but because it’s political pandering unproven to enhance the safety of police officers. But I have the freedom to choose to display or support these things.

The Orland Park sticker is worse than designs on police cars because the village is obliging its free citizens to display a political message on their personal vehicles. While social media forums were split on their opinions of the new sticker, Sean Kennedy eloquently replied to the Village’s Facebook post[1] with his displeasure citing a Supreme Court case:

Did anyone ask the village’s legal counsel whether this amounts to forced political speech and therefore opens the village and its taxpayers up to costly litigation? The Supreme Court was pretty clear in Wooley v. Maynard that the government cannot force individuals to act as mobile billboards for its ideological message.

The Wooley case, however, is even less problematic than this one; it dealt with whether New Hampshire could force citizens to display “Live Free or Die,” the state motto, on their license plate.

But how is this Orland Park case controversial? I personally like the message. It’s in support of the cops. Cops are the good guys. They need your support. I’m cool with that. But we have to ask: what’s next?

My 2017 Illinois license plate reads “Land of Lincoln.” How much outrage would there be if next year’s version read “Land of Lincoln & Obama?” What about a vehicle sticker reading “Windy City Supports LGBTQ” over a rainbow US flag? (Even Chicago knows better than to include both the Cubs and White Sox logos on things of this nature!) And if David Pulphus’ painting of police as pigs can hang in the US Capitol building, some little girl’s “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” or North Dakota pipeline protest design can surely win next year’s contest for government-enforced display on your and my windshields.

One popular alternative is for the Village to offer two sticker options. Motorists would choose between the “Orland Park Supports Police” version and another sticker. (And come on, you know the cops would call it the “I hate police” sticker, right?) Now, as a policeman who appreciates the visual signs of community law enforcement support, I’d hope all the Orland Park motorists would opt for the original Thin Blue Line design. (Then, I’d also have to consider why someone who doesn’t truly support law enforcement might purchase the one that says s/he does. Hmm.)

But then, in a turn of events earlier this week, Mayor McLaughin announced changes to the design. Publicly voiced concerns led the Village to change the sticker flag’s color scheme to the traditional full red, white, and blue. Additionally, officials will allow motorists to cut off the Orland Park Supports Police banner.

This fracas goes beyond preventing the Village of Orland Park from becoming the next Wooley. Even offering an alternative is a bad idea. As a government entity that fields a police department, why open yourself up to the inevitable allegations that police officers’ decisions on whether or not to stop, cite, warn, arrest, or tow were influenced by what was or was not affixed to the windshield?

If you don’t think officers would take note of the motorist’s choice, you clearly do not understand police culture deeply enough. We would, even if purely out of curiosity. Whether it would affect the officer’s enforcement decision is doubtful, but still up for unwinnable debate.

And when a citizen does lodge that complaint, it’s a go-nowhere, lose-lose endeavor. It’s not like any officer in his or her right mind would ever openly admit, “Yeah, I wrote her two tickets. She cut off the ‘Supports Police’ portion.” At best, it’d be a fruitless argument regarding subconscious bias. With the national press this story is receiving, you’re actually opening up all your surrounding cities’ cops to the same allegation: an Orland Park vehicle sticker choice influences discretion. Why do that? This job is hard enough.

I applaud the Village for changing their mind. They could very well have dug in their heels and demanded full compliance; they took one of the high roads in this matter. But will motorists still feel intimidated into displaying the complete sticker, message and all? Would they fear punitive enforcement by officers who might view the removal of the supportive message as hatred or disrespect?

My advice to Orland Park officials is, if you’re going to embrace something as your village’s proclamation, let it be an exaggeration about being the universe’s epicenter of golf. Leave the choice up to your citizens on whether or not they support the men and women of your police department. This is coercion – tainting the authentic actions of those who do truly and voluntarily love their police.

[1] Village of Orland Park, Illinois; dated Feb 20th at 7:35pm; https://www.facebook.com/VillageofOrlandPark/photos/a.276208115781206.63053.275669905835027/1296948267040514/?type=3&theater

12 Comments on this post.

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  • Greg Prickett
    3 March 2017 at 9:57 am - Reply

    I objected to the sticker, not because of the message, but it is desecration of the American flag. You don’t get to change the flag to make a political statement, whether it be with a blue line or rainbow-colored stripes.

    • Abraham Purvis
      3 March 2017 at 9:32 pm - Reply

      Greg, I find your contributions to Fault lines to be some of the best, your insights as a former police officer are invaluable. I wondered if you were perhaps being ironic at first but I think not. The thing about desecrating the US flag is you have to start with a flag that meets the legal definition. Anything that does not meet the legal definition is not a US flag. That black and white and blue thing was never a US flag so desecration is impossible.

      • Greg Prickett
        5 March 2017 at 3:18 pm - Reply

        I’m sorry, but it represents the flag, and according to 4 USC 8, a flag includes a printed representation of the flag. They have the right to do so, under the First Amendment freedom of speech provisions, but that doesn’t mean I have to approve of it any more than I have to approve of flag burning.

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      4 March 2017 at 12:52 pm - Reply

      Greg, I’ll take the opposite side for a moment. Is every alteration, addition, edit, tweak, resizing, reshaping, recoloring of/to the 1.0×1.9 American flag (and its images) considered a desecration? What, if any, changes in the flag’s image are allowed before it becomes desecration?

      But on to other things. What are your thoughts on the updated sticker design? It’s now a standard, unperverted American flag with the words “Orland Park Supports Police.”

      • Anon
        4 March 2017 at 8:51 pm - Reply

        LH:
        Based on what hands down is the most tortuous statute in U.S. legislative history, the U.S. Flag Code[1] (and any state code derived therefrom), and the myriad deadletter desecration cases, yeah, it’s quite possible this counts as desecration: It’s (a) a representation purporting to be a flag, with (b) a marking or design on it.

        [1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/4/3

      • Greg Prickett
        5 March 2017 at 3:23 pm - Reply

        Lou, as any good lawyer would say – it depends. A lapel pin of the flag is OK, and covered in one of the EOs or CFRs. The blue line flag, the rainbow flag, and any other similar flags are a desecration.

        I’m not in favor of the second version, but not on flag grounds, but on compelled speech grounds. That, and I’ve seen way too many comments on PoliceOne that removing the “Orland Park Supports Police” comment would cause them to issue tickets instead of warnings. I just don’t think that it is a good idea.

  • REvers
    3 March 2017 at 10:46 am - Reply

    Seems like a perfect target for Calvin to pee on.

  • RICHARD KOPF
    4 March 2017 at 12:09 pm - Reply

    Lou,

    Enjoyed your post and the practical wisdom that goes with it. But, I desperately need to dive down a rabbit hole.

    When I drive, my mind wanders. Hell, at my age, my mind wanders when I do anything. But back to driving.

    For a long time now, I have been fascinated with two fish symbols that appear on the back end of many autos. I am told that one denotes Christendom. I am also informed that the other denotes evolution. They are very similar, although not identical. For both, I am confused why some drivers are compelled to put a fish on a car.

    The foregoing fish musing has a point. The government should not require stickers on cars. But, I am not concerned with Constitution. Rather, I am against the government confusing old people like me.

    All the best.

    RGK

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      4 March 2017 at 2:54 pm - Reply

      Your Honor,

      Thanks for the discussion.

      I once (jokingly, but in a serious tone) told a supervisor that my decision to stop a car or cite/warn the motorist were based on a car’s bumper stickers. The ensuing conversation was nothing short of absolute hilarity. I remember it involved “John Kerry for President” & the Chicago Cubs.

      Now onto a legal question: Does a Grateful Dead rockband logo on a car’s rear end equate to Probable Cause to detain & search for contraband? I mean if statistics are allowed to come into the decision then…. HAHAHA

      Lou

      • RICHARD KOPF
        4 March 2017 at 5:33 pm - Reply

        Lou,

        As one guy, who was probably a cop, put it, “The massive phenomenon that was the Grateful Dead has never been objectively reported on–a historical anomaly that boils down to what might as well be a Buddhist koan: Pretty much anyone who was there must be immediately eliminated as a reliable witness.”

        All the best.

        RGK

      • Anon
        4 March 2017 at 8:58 pm - Reply

        “Does a Grateful Dead rockband logo on a car’s rear end equate to Probable Cause to detain & search for contraband?”

        Are you asking earnestly? Because there are actually enough PC cases involving bumper stickers (and like paraphranelia) to fill a law review article.

        • Scott Jacobs
          17 March 2017 at 2:04 am - Reply

          Well, I know what my LR submission will be when I hit law school…