Global protests over racism and police brutality against Black Americans have renewed scrutiny over the Clark County Sheriff’s Office’s decision to adorn its vehicles with a symbol associated with “Blue Lives Matter.”
For almost four years, white SUVs that deputies drive on patrol have had black-and-white American flags with a blue bar across the center stickered to the rear windows. The flag has in recent years become more prominent among white supremacists and other groups derisive of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Clark County Sheriff’s Office representatives told OPB the stickers do not reflect “Blue Lives Matter,” but rather the “thin blue line.” The latter, they said, supports law enforcement and pays tribute to those who died in the line of duty.
“Blue Lives Matters is something totally different,” said Sgt. Brent Waddell, the office’s public information officer. “The wires got crossed years ago.”
But recently, the Vancouver chapter of the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens have condemned the symbols as both insensitive and inappropriately political statements from public servants.
Shareefah Hoover, chair of the NAACP Vancouver’s legal redress committee, said they’ve heard several times that people find the symbol intimidating on the sheriff’s office vehicles.
“Many people have shared concerns about it sending a message of division, of intimidation, of a 'them versus us' mentality that we don’t want to see on our publicly funded vehicles,” she said.
Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of the Southwest Washington LULAC, added police shouldn’t endorse any symbol, intentional or not, that comes with a perceived bias. He compared the stickers to attaching presidential bumper stickers.
“I realize that people have their own right to their own beliefs, to their own convictions, and to their own political views,” he said, “but if they had any type of department-issued sticker, it would still be negative to somebody.”
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office has not responded yet to specific concerns from the community groups.
The phrase “Blue Lives Matter” was popularized after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which protests violence and systemic racism against Black Americans.
Since then, the flag in question has become closely associated with white nationalist groups. In the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the blue-lined flag appeared alongside Nazi and Confederate flags.
Recently, Multnomah County and the Portland Police Bureau have both drawn criticism for associating with the flag.
Last January, a black former Multnomah County employee sued the county after she complained about the flag in county offices and was subsequently harassed by coworkers. The county settled for $100,000.
And in November, Willamette Week reported a Portland police officer had put a similar sticker on the back of a squad car in violation of city policies that forbid “private decals or markings” on police vehicles.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office has similar policies. Its manual prohibits applying “unauthorized window clings, cut-outs, bumper stickers, license plate holders or any other personal item to department vehicles.”
However, records obtained by OPB show the sheriff’s office bought the stickers for the force. In July 2016, a sergeant wrote that the undersheriff bought “Thin Blue Line American Flag decals” for every fleet vehicle.
“Please install the decals in the lower passenger side rear window of your vehicle,” wrote Sgt. Dennis Pritchard. It’s not clear whether taxpayer dollars were used to buy the stickers.
Some residents have complained. In January 2019, a woman emailed that she and her husband were driving behind one of the sheriff’s office’s white Chevy Tahoes and noticed the decal.
“Blue Lives Matter is a campaign created in direct response to Black Lives Matter. As I’m sure we’re all painfully aware of, this is a matter that’s creating serious division in our communities,” she wrote.
“I worry that displaying such a sticker might further the divide. Some citizens might view them as threatening and confrontational, and be less likely to cooperate with the police in situations where it’s crucial,” she added.
In February 2020, another resident wrote he supported police, but questioned the need for the decal.
“Given the symbol’s controversy and its use on publicly funded vehicles, it seems like the prudent approach would be not to display it,” the resident wrote. “The flag is not the American flag and placing it on a public vehicle shows public (government) support for a political movement.”
In his response, Undersheriff John Chapman disputed that it’s a political statement or affiliated with “Blue Lives Matter.”
“If law enforcement officers actually put their lives ahead of others, they would just stay home and not go to work,” he wrote.
Regardless of the flag’s connotations, Hoover said, it shouldn’t be used on public property.
“There shouldn’t be political messaging on code enforcement fleets or public works fleets. It’s completely inappropriate for public messaging to be on taxpayer-funded property,” she said. “It’s inappropriate to imply — by pasting this or affixing this to public property — that all taxpayers agree.”