While trying to promote its services for victims of crime last month, the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office wound up receiving considerable criticism for a Twitter post that featured a Thin Blue Line flag.
The office received blowback online, including from the ACLU, for promoting Crime Victims’ Rights Week with a photo that was taken with the flag visible in the background.
Many, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, were quick to ask whether the Ada prosecutors also served victims of police violence.
Though the Thin Blue Line flag was created as a symbol to support police officers – especially those injured in the line of duty – it has been co-opted by white nationalist groups and as a signal of opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice.
The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office tweet included a link to a blog post that highlighted victim-witness coordinators, who work toward the goal of making victims “feel empowered when moving through the criminal justice system.” In a statement to the Idaho Statesman, the office said it did not intend to take any position other than to highlight the work of those who support crime victims through “what is often the most traumatic time in their lives.”
“We understand that our original message in the post was overshadowed by the controversy of the Thin Blue Line, which is in the background of the photo,” the Ada Prosecutor’s Office said in the statement “… We know there is controversy behind that meaning today, but did not intend the photo of our victim witness coordinators to be a comment on that controversy.”
After the tweet was posted, responses flooded in. Some pointed out that prosecutors are supposed to be independent from police departments, even though they work hand-in-hand. For things such as police shootings or an officer accused of violence, a prosecutor’s office is often the final level of oversight and determines whether or not lethal force was justified or criminal charges warranted.
Others pointed out the timing of the Twitter post: It was made during closing arguments in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who was found guilty of murder in the killing of George Floyd – a day after the tweet.
Lauren Bramwell, a policy strategist for the ACLU of Idaho, told the Statesman that she and others were concerned seeing the image displayed during a week that is supposed to honor victims and their experiences.
“Whether they are victims of police brutality, whether they have experienced domestic violence at the hands of a law enforcement officer, that may all have implications on whether a victim may feel safe,” Bramwell said during a phone interview.
The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office noted that the photo with the flag was not taken in its office lobby, but rather inside an interior office space that is not accessible to the public. The office would not say whether the flag was still in the office, but noted in its statement that it was hung up “some time ago” – when the flag “clearly represented respect and understanding for law enforcement injured or killed in the line of duty.”
Thin Blue Line flags started showing up at Black Lives Matter counterprotests over the past year. The flags also were seen flying next to Confederate flags at the controversial rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that featured white supremacists, Nazi symbols and anti-Semitic slogans. At the deadly Capitol riot in January, the flags were being flown while police officers were being attacked and injured – in fact, officers were even assaulted with the flags.
At BLM rallies in Boise, the flags were waved by counterprotesters who said they were supporting police. Following two protests in the summer of 2020, the Boise Police Department announced it would ask officers not to display the flag in public while on duty. The move was made by then-Acting Chief Ron Winegar last June.
The department had never authorized the symbol to be put on cars or uniforms, and the June announcement added that officers should not display it in public. Winegar said in a video that the flag still meant “a great deal” to him, and he even had it in his office.
“The decision to not put them out in public is to avoid creating any barriers or causing any division with people in our community,” said BPD spokesperson Haley Williams.
Bramwell pointed to the BPD move as a reason for calling the display by the office of Prosecutor Jan Bennetts into question. She said displaying the flag could raise the question of whether the office can be impartial while investigating complaints of law enforcement behavior.
“I think that there is a larger discussion to have about police transparency, about building trust, between knowing that law enforcement is not above the law and being able to trust folks in the prosecutor’s office to apply the law equally,” Bramwell said.
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