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‘Back the Blue’: History and Symbolism of The Thin Blue Line

‘Back the Blue’: History and Symbolism of The Thin Blue Line

A thin, blue line stretched across a black background. You’ve likely seen this icon, and possibly displayed it yourself, to show support for law enforcement officers. But do you know the origins of this pivotal symbol?

What started as a phrase has evolved over the years into a symbol that represents the police officers who stand between peace and society’s descent into violence and chaos. Today, supporters proudly display the thin blue line to show their respect for law enforcement and everything they do for the communities they serve.

This important icon has been associated with the police for many years. But most people aren’t aware of the emblem’s rich history and deeper meaning. So, what’s the story?

What Does the Thin Blue Line Mean?

We all recognize a blue line as something that shows support for law enforcement, but what is the thin blue line and what does it represent, exactly?

The thin blue line is a symbol that honors all law enforcement personnel. It stands for the courage and sacrifice that our “boys in blue” exhibit every day when they put on that uniform and work to defend and protect the community. The blue line has also been used to honor those who lost their lives in the line of duty.

Traditionally appearing against a solid black background, the thin blue line itself is meant to represent a line of officers standing as a barrier between peace and chaos. The blue was chosen based on the traditional navy police uniform, which is itself a “testimony to true blue loyalty and steadfastness,” according to Police1.

But the blue line is not free of controversy. In light of recent incidents and allegations of police brutality, the line has faced criticism and, sadly, has been misused by some groups to spark division and make statements that aren’t in line with its true meaning.

But, according to the National Police Association, the message behind the thin blue line is not one of violence or even authority. Rather, it is quite the opposite – it has been, and still is, a symbol of peace.

“It is not part of a battle cry by police officers of aggression toward the public or those who oppose law and order. It is not a flag pronouncing superiority of class or privilege. It is a symbol to the citizenry that the thin blue line will not be broken,” Chief Joel F. Shults writes in an article for the National Police Association. “For a police officer, it says they are a part of something bigger than themselves. For the civilian, it says they are willing to stand with those who join in everyone’s responsibility to maintain peace and those whose vocation is dedicated to maintaining peace.”

To truly understand the significance of the blue line, one must understand its history. From its origination in 1854 to more recent moments in the spotlight, understanding this symbol’s past helps us better understand its place in today’s society.

Thin Blue Line Flag design on a Vedder Holster

History of the Thin Blue Line

While the actual blue line movement began fairly recently, the roots of the emblem can be traced back to the 19th century.

1854 – Before there was the thin blue line, there was the thin red line, which dates back to the Crimean War. The term was coined by the British, who used it to refer to their infantrymen who wore red coats and formed a “thin red line” at the front of the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.

During the battle, the 93rd Highland Regiment of Foot of the British Army successfully warded off a Russian cavalry force of 2,500 men. About 400 members of the 93rd Regiment stood between the Russians and Balaklava, creating a thin red line of about two soldiers deep – about half the standard size. When the Russians retreated and the Regiment prevailed, the term “the thin red line” was coined to recognize their valor and bravery.

1911 – Over the years, the term spread to other professions, such as the “thin white line of bishops.” The first record of the term “the thin blue line” being used was in 1911 when Nels Dickmann Anderson used it to refer to the blue-clad U.S. Army in his poem, “The Thin Blue Line.”

The second stanza of the poem reads:

“The thin, blue line that fights for right,

That never bends the knee to might,

Has ever since it knew God's light

Fought dark Oppression in his lair,

And routed Wrong from valleys fair,

Sweet Peace and Plenty leaving there.”

1922 – Though there is no official record of when the term was first used in reference to law enforcement, the thin blue line was used by New York City Police Commissioner Richard Enright in 1922 in a public relations attempt to quell criticism of his leadership.

After that, the term grew in popularity and began popping up in political speeches and press coverage across the nation, according to an article published by The Marshall Project.

1950s – Usage of the thin blue line became even more widespread in the 1950s thanks to Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Parker, who frequently used the phrase in his speeches. Parker even used the term for the title of the TV show, “The Thin Blue Line,” which ran briefly in the ‘50s to positively promote the LAPD.

1970s-1980s – In the ‘70s and ’80s, the blue line started popping up in even more media. By the early 1970s, the term was widely used among United States police departments. It became even more popularized when it appeared in police novels written by officer Joseph Wambaugh throughout the two decades.

In 1988, the term was used in the film “The Thin Blue Line,” a documentary by Errol Morris about the trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams who killed Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood in 1976, which promoted the phrase even further.

2014 – In 2014, a “Blue Lives Matter” movement was initiated after two St. Louis-area police officers were shot in the line of duty during a protest following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

It was during this time of conflict and division that the thin blue line reappeared in the public eye and became widespread on social media.

Seeing the widespread use of the thin blue line graphic online and ongoing anti-police protests that occurred following the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, college student Andrew Jacob created the first thin blue line flag in 2014 and founded Thin Blue Line USA – one of the largest online retailers of blue line products and apparel to this day, according to The Marshall Project.

2017 – In 2017, the thin blue line faced massive criticism following its use at the infamous “Unite the Right” rally on Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The rally, which was organized in response to the city’s decision to remove a Robert E. Lee statue from a local park, quickly turned violent when protestors and counter-protesters clashed – resulting in the death of Heather Heyer and the injury of dozens of others.

Though the incident has been widely rebuffed by most Blue Lives Matter groups and police supporters, the actions of a few that day resulted in bad press and further criticism of the movement.

Jacob, the founder of Thin Blue Line USA, has come to the blue line’s defense, saying the flag was designed as a way to show support for police officers – nothing more – and has publicly rebuked the actions at the Unite the Right rally, according to The Marshall Project.

“The flag has no association with racism, hatred, bigotry,” he told the new outlet. “It’s a flag to show support for law enforcement – no politics involved.”

2020 – While those behind the thin blue line flag have worked hard to keep it separate from political movements, the symbol came under attack once again in 2020 following the death of George Floyd.

While many police officers and supporters donned the thin blue line as a way to show support for law enforcement personnel who were facing threats and criticism at the time, some police departments chose to distance themselves from the icon.

In May 2020, San Francisco police Chief Bill Scott ordered his officers to cease wearing the blue line after some of them responded to a protest wearing face masks displaying the symbol, saying he didn’t want them to come across as “divisive or disrespectful,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The move prompted backlash from many police supporters, including Tony Montoya, the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, who stated he saw the move as “giving in to hatred toward police.”

Despite incidents like these, the thin blue line only continued to grow in popularity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic – an era in which many in the community wanted to honor first responders like law enforcement officers for the work they did to keep our communities safe in an unprecedented time.

Today – While today, some have chosen to move away from the blue line in an attempt to mend police relations and avoid further division, many have chosen to hold on to what the thin blue line has always represented – honor and respect for the officers who put their lives on the line every day to keep our communities safe.

“While there has been historic misuse or misrepresentation of the thin blue line flag for alternative purposes, its intended purpose is very simple: solidarity and respect for police officers,” according to C.O.P.S. Arizona. “It is displayed to share encouragement and gratitude for the men and women who dedicate their lives to keeping the public safe. It is also displayed to honor the lives lost in the line of duty.”

Variations of the Thin Blue Line

The thin blue line has taken many forms over the decades, especially in recent years.

What started as a phrase utilized in various stories, poems, books, and movies was eventually made into an image that has been stamped on everything from police cars to face masks.

When the thin blue line flag was created in 2014, it was a simple black background with a bright blue line running horizontally across the center. Over time, a blue line was added to a black-and-white version of the American flag, and it has continued to evolve from there.

Today, the blue line symbol is widespread on social media, where it is remixed and used to overlay Facebook profile pictures to show support for law enforcement. You can pretty much find the blue line on anything: thin blue line shirts, hats, jewelry, bumper stickers, posters, art … the list is endless.

When the blue lives matter movement first kicked off, so did an image of “The Punisher” with the blue line incorporated into it. Because The Punisher is a vigilante Marvel comic character created in 1974 who took justice into his own hands by violent means, the use of the thin blue line in relation to the character’s logo has faced some criticism. The image is still commonly seen today, however, and can be found in many forms.

No matter how you choose to display the thin blue line, its meaning remains the same – support for police, their families, and the protection and peace they fight for.

Thin Blue Line Flag pattern

How to Show Police Support

If you’d like to “back the blue” and show your support for law enforcement, there are plenty of ways to do so.

First and foremost, don’t commit crime – or at least be respectful to your arresting officer!

All jokes aside, the best way to say thank you to your local police is to literally do just that. Consider attending a police event like a fundraiser or other function to show support and thank those in attendance for their service.

Another way to show support for law enforcement is to show appreciation to the police in your life and community. Odds are that you have a friend or family member who either serves as an officer or knows one. In 2021, there were over 680,000 full-time law enforcement officers in the U.S. – a ratio of about 2.4 officers per 1,000 civilians – according to the FBI.

Another excellent way to show appreciation to the police is to proudly wear and display the thin blue line. Whether that’s a flag, a hat, or a coffee mug, displaying the blue line shows those around you that you support our law enforcement personnel. If you’re looking for a cool police support T-shirt to wear, check out the Vedder Holsters Thin Blue Line Shirt.

Finally, you can donate to a police cause. You can make a donation to your local police department, or you can donate to a law enforcement charity of your choice. (We recommend vetting charities through Charity Navigator or another trusted source before making a donation!)


The blue line has become an important icon among law enforcement personnel and their supporters. Representing the men and women who bravely stand between peace and social anarchy every day when they don their uniforms, the thin blue line has served as a symbol of courage and sacrifice since its origination.

Now that you understand the history and significance of what the thin blue line represents, you can proudly fly a flag, wear a thin blue line shirt, or show support for law enforcement in your own way. (Perhaps by sharing this article with someone who might be interested in learning the facts about the blue line and its symbolism!)

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Mikayla Blair

After launching her career as an award-winning journalist in the American Southwest, Mikayla Blair joined the Vedder Holsters team as a content writer in 2021. She writes about all things guns, holsters, and concealed carry, and is especially passionate about women's self-defense.

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