Today I saw an American flag with a thin blue line as one of the stripes and the words “we support our police” under it. In case you’re not aware, the thin blue line flag is internationally recognized as a symbol for support of police and law enforcement.

My problem with this flag is not that I don’t believe in the idea of law enforcement. I think law enforcement is necessary. My problem isn’t even that most people who fly it seem to have authoritarian leanings. My problem with the thin blue line flag has to do with policing and law enforcement itself.

Much of what police in the United States do causes tremendous harm to society. This includes attacking nonviolent protesters, jailing peaceful drug users, harassing the poor, and lying in court to defend their colleagues. I call police officers who do things like that “thugs”.[1]

Much of what law enforcement fails to do also causes tremendous harm to society. White-collar criminals steal billions from the poor, yet they’re rarely investigated or prosecuted.

You might say those are problems with the law and bad incentives, not law enforcement. But it’s not so easy to separate the ethics of law enforcement from the law from the court system from corrections. Let me explain how they’re all inextricably linked.

Suppose you’re a law enforcement agent tasked with breaking up a protest against global heating[2]. Suppose the protesters are chained together around some industrial equipment, blocking ancient trees from being cut down. Should you enforce the law and remove them?

If all cops acted according to their own personal moral code instead of the law, it would be chaos. But enforcing the law and removing environmental protesters repeatedly results in much more severe prolonged global chaos which cancels out the good of enforcing the law in the first place. Not to mention when global heating gets bad enough, you’ll have bigger problems to worry about such as the collapse of civilization. Would you still arrest the protesters knowing that?

That’s just at the upstream layer of the law itself. But what about the downstream layer of corrections? Those protesters doing the right thing may get sent to prison. As a local or state cop, you swore an oath to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Well that’s what prison is here in the United States. If you arrest someone knowing they’ll probably go to prison, you become the instrument of cruel and unjust punishment which you swore an oath against.

So you see how the injustice of the laws and the court system and corrections trickles into law enforcement? Enforcing laws isn’t inherently good. If there were a law against being short and police started arresting short people, you wouldn’t say “I don’t agree with the law against short people, but law enforcement is doing a good job of enforcing it, so I support them anyways”. That’s the equivalent of saying “there’s no law so unjust I won’t support its enforcers”.

So why do people stick flags in their yards that give blanket support to the enforcers of these unjust laws? Sometimes it’s important to give broad support to a group or movement despite its relatively minor shortcomings, but the shortcomings of law enforcement are very major. Law enforcement will never be perfect, but right now it’s so flawed that it doesn’t deserve broad support.

So please don’t plant thin blue line flags in your yard. By doing so, you’re giving broad support to a group that doesn’t deserve it. Instead find a way to honor the good of law enforcement while condemning the bad. That’s a better way to support the police.

1: Thug
2: Global Heating