Mass. officials double down on FF order to remove 'thin blue line' flags
Town Administrator Tom Mayo expects the flags that fly atop fire trucks to be removed within a couple of days
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The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.
HINGHAM — Town officials are standing by a controversial order that demands Hingham firefighters remove the "thin blue line" flags that fly atop fire trucks, even as residents and firefighters themselves stand up in opposition.
"We will do this carefully, and we will do this respectfully so we can attempt to move forward as a community," Town Administrator Tom Mayo said. He added that he expects the flags to be removed "within a couple of days."
Hingham selectmen addressed the issue at their Tuesday night meeting, just hours after more than 100 people stood in front of town hall in reaction to the order. Dozens of protestors against the order waved American flags and held signs that said "We support and pray for police." Those who supported the order held signs that said "Black Lives Matter" and "Justice for Breonna Taylor."
Last week, Fire Chief Steve Murphy and Police Chief Glenn Olsson told personnel they'd need to remove the flags, which are black-and-white versions of the American flag with a single blue line in the center, because they're against a town policy that forbids political messaging on town property. The decision came after a Hingham resident emailed the town to complain.
The flags flown by Hingham firefighters were originally purchased to show support for the police department after the 2018 killing of Weymouth police Sgt. Michael Chesna, but have recently "taken a different political meaning," the chiefs said. Firefighters have refused to remove the flag.
On Tuesday, more than 80 residents called in to the Hingham Board of Selectmen meeting to discuss the ongoing controversy. The selectmen all signed on to a statement originally drafted by selectman Joe Fisher, the board's liaison to the police department. In it, they reiterated their support for the police department while standing by their decision to enforce the town's flag policy.
Resident Andrew Turner told selectmen that the thin blue line flag has been "co-opted by white supremacists as a counter symbol to the Black Lives Matter movement," and that that fact alone should warrant removing the flags. The concept of a "thin blue line" itself raises complicated questions about policing, he said.
"This narrative highlights an assumed difference between officers and citizens, and the idea that police officers need to walk a line between chaos and order, which in my opinion perpetuates an "us versus them" mentality," he said. "It doesn't help build support in our communities between the officers and the public."
Another resident, Ed Johnson, said his father was a police officer who was killed on the job, and that he hopes the town can find other ways to honor officers.
The discussion lasted nearly 90 minutes.
Melissa Smith, a Hingham resident and candidate for state representative, said the Monday afternoon rally drove home that the flag has been used as a calling card for white supremacists. She attended to support counter-protesters, and noticed that attendees discussed things like Trump's reelection and abortion, and made racist comments toward a Black counter-protestor.
"I think that fairly proves the point that it was wise for our selectboard and for our chiefs to distance themselves from this particular flag," she said.
Another resident, Liza Shetty, noted that a Hingham fire truck bearing a thin blue line flag drove past the rally several times. She asked why firefighters were "allowed to engage in a political rally."
In response, Mayo said town officials would "look into this occurrence to see if any policies have been violated and take appropriate action," promising to do so "in a respectful manner."
Tensions throughout the country have risen around policing as protesters call for reexamination of the justice system in the wake of recent police killings of unarmed Black Americans. Their deaths have highlighted what many point to as systemic racism in the levers of power in the U.S., especially in policing.
Hingham Police Chief Glenn Olsson told selectment that the debates around policing have worn on the department's officers.
"We are experiencing tremendous pressure that's really taking a toll on everyone who serves in our profession and the fire profession," he said, adding that firefighters are also under extra stress. "Our officers are stressed out right now. They're worn out. They're confused."
The fact that officers have had to perform all their duties during the pandemic is just one example of the intense pressure that comes with the job, he said. The "social unrest" in recent weeks has also placed increased stress on officers.
Officers are "trying to figure out. . . Why we're being held responsible for something that doesn't happen in Massachusetts," he said. "I'm not saying we're perfect. . . But by and large, Massachusetts' training and qualities and rules and regulations and policies far exceed other areas."
Fire Chief Murphy spoke briefly during the meeting to answer a question about how long the flags have flown on Hingham fire trucks. Firefighters put the flags there for about two months in 2018 to honor Chesna, and have flown them to mark the anniversary of his death for the past two years, Murphy said.
Selectmen Chair Mary Power said the recent discussions around flags has highlighted the need for the town to have a formal, written policy governing which types of flags could be flown at town buildings before introducing any new flags into the mix.
"I think it's important to act consistently," she said.
Power said the town has historically been a bastion of "civil discourse," and urged residents to uphold that tradition during this latest debate.
"I think when things get divisive, they get in the way of listening, understanding and working together to find a path forward, which has really been the hallmark of this town for nearly 400 years," she said.
Selectmen said in their joint statement that they have "stood with our men and women in blue" in response to the recent questions around policing. The statement also condemned threats levied at the resident who initially requested the flags be taken down. Since the request has gone public, the resident has faced "ceaseless and vicious" harassment, including threats to his life and harassment that has expanded to his family, selectmen said.
"Such conduct debases any attempt at public discourse and makes hypocrites of those who would call for respect for public safety officers while simultaneously threatening the safety of others," the statement said.
Patriot Ledger reporter Joe Difazio contributed to this report. Follow Audrey Cooney on Twitter at @Audrey__Cooney.
©2020 The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.