San Francisco police officers will be provided with neutral face coverings after some responded to a recent protest wearing masks with the “thin blue line” logo, sparking controversy, Police Chief Bill Scott announced over the weekend.
The move drew harsh criticism from the San Francisco police union, which distributed the face masks to officers last week.
“With a global pandemic raging across the world and the inability of police officers to shelter in place, San Francisco’s professional protesters played the race card,” San Francisco Police Officers Assn. President Tony Montoya said in a message to members sent Saturday. “They pulled the strings that control our chief, and we are now prohibited from wearing the POA masks on duty.”
The masks, which appeared in news photos of officers responding to a housing protest on Friday, feature a black and white American flag with a blue line through it and the POA logo.
Critics say the “thin blue line” imagery has been used by white supremacist groups to symbolize support for the police and opposition to Black Lives Matter protesters. Some say the presence of the union logo also violates a department ban on on-duty political activity.
“In promoting the POA sign / symbol, it suggests to the community that the officers are acting on behalf of the POA, not the department,” John Hamasaki, a member of the city’s Police Commission, wrote in an email to Scott, which he also posted to his Twitter account on Friday.
“In addition, as I’m sure you are aware, the Blue Lives Matter symbol is also considered by people in the community as a symbol of anti-black sentiment arising after the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Later Friday, Scott wrote in a message to officers that the department was working to find alternatives to the face coverings.
“The San Francisco Police Department stands for safety with respect for all, and in consideration of concerns some community members have expressed that ‘thin blue line’ symbolism on some of our officers’ face masks may be perceived as divisive or disrespectful, we are taking steps with our officers and the Police Officers Association to provide alternative, neutral personal protective equipment,” he wrote.
The police union characterized the move as one of capitulation, noting that union officials had shown the masks to Scott’s command staff before they were distributed to officers, and no issue was raised. Montoya said the flag is meant to memorialize officers who were killed in the line of duty and represents “law enforcement’s separation of order and chaos.”
“To be clear, because no one who spouted off yesterday asked, we absolutely reject any correlation between our face coverings and any group that promotes racism, hate or bigotry,” he said Saturday. “It is a fact that extremist groups attempt to use well-known symbols to mainstream their repugnant ideas. We repudiate their beliefs and refuse to let them win.”
Tom Saggau, spokesman for the San Francisco Police Officers Assn., said Monday that the face masks can’t be replaced until the city is able to provide an alternative, which he says it has so far been unable to do.
“It’s unfortunate that in this particular incident the chief didn’t put the public safety of his officers first instead of caving to the same group of folks that would protest anything,” he said Monday. “If it was just a plain white mask, folks would complain it was racist in some way. If it was black it would be disrespectful. If it was brown it would be, what about the black and white folks? It’s just silly.”
John Crew, a retired civil rights attorney, told the San Francisco Examiner he believed both the flag and union logo violate San Francisco Police Department rules prohibiting on-duty political activity.
“The definition of a uniform is that it’s uniform,” he said. “There is no option to add your own statements, affiliations, whatever.”
But Saggau said the union was merely trying to provide a face covering that its members would like and would want to wear.
He said that the week before the masks were given out in San Francisco, the Los Angeles Police Protective League distributed masks with the union logo to Los Angeles Police officers, and that no problem has been reported.
“Putting it in the appropriate context, none of us have been through a worldwide pandemic,” he said. “So things are being done now and things are happening now that no one’s ever seen.”