Why Mandatory “Thin Blue Line” Stickers Won’t Win Hearts and Minds
March 3, 2017 (Fault Lines) — I grew up in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. I still vividly recall Orland Park’s water tower – painted like a white golf ball perched upon a green tee. In huge block letters, it announced GOLF CENTER OF THE WORLD. Wow. Even as a little boy, I was skeptical of that claim. But whatever; it was just a water tower.
The Village of Orland Park is in the spotlight this week. Mayor Dan McLaughlin announced the new village vehicle sticker design: “Orland Park Supports Police” over a grayscale American flag with a blue line running horizontal through the middle. The mayor was quoted in a press release:
We want our local police and law enforcement across the country to know that Orland Park supports them…Police officers on all levels have had a hard time these past few years and it’s time for people to thank them for their service.
American municipalities can require each and every motor vehicle registered within city limits to display a sticker bought from the municipality, in addition to state registration/license plates. (In Orland Park, a typical passenger car sticker runs $30 and is valid for three years). Some local governments merely change the color of a logo every year; others run design contests for grade-school children.
This story comes on the heels of a similar controversy in Kentucky last week. In Cattlesburg, the police chief was pressured by local outcry to remove decals from his department’s squad cars. The design on the car hoods portrayed the Punisher™ logo and “Blue Lives Matter,” complete with The Thin Blue Line motif.
Now I share as much adoration for Blue Lives Matter as I do for Black Lives Matter – which is to say none at all. They’re both unnecessarily divisive in a time when our country needs unification. Even in the limited times I display Thin Blue Line iconography, it’s discreet and private. I’ve also been an outspoken critic of Blue Lives Matter hate crime legislation; not because of the inclusion of the term, but because it’s political pandering unproven to enhance the safety of police officers. But I have the freedom to choose to display or support these things.
The Orland Park sticker is worse than designs on police cars because the village is obliging its free citizens to display a political message on their personal vehicles. While social media forums were split on their opinions of the new sticker, Sean Kennedy eloquently replied to the Village’s Facebook post with his displeasure citing a Supreme Court case:
Did anyone ask the village’s legal counsel whether this amounts to forced political speech and therefore opens the village and its taxpayers up to costly litigation? The Supreme Court was pretty clear in Wooley v. Maynard that the government cannot force individuals to act as mobile billboards for its ideological message.
The Wooley case, however, is even less problematic than this one; it dealt with whether New Hampshire could force citizens to display “Live Free or Die,” the state motto, on their license plate.
But how is this Orland Park case controversial? I personally like the message. It’s in support of the cops. Cops are the good guys. They need your support. I’m cool with that. But we have to ask: what’s next?
My 2017 Illinois license plate reads “Land of Lincoln.” How much outrage would there be if next year’s version read “Land of Lincoln & Obama?” What about a vehicle sticker reading “Windy City Supports LGBTQ” over a rainbow US flag? (Even Chicago knows better than to include both the Cubs and White Sox logos on things of this nature!) And if David Pulphus’ painting of police as pigs can hang in the US Capitol building, some little girl’s “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” or North Dakota pipeline protest design can surely win next year’s contest for government-enforced display on your and my windshields.
One popular alternative is for the Village to offer two sticker options. Motorists would choose between the “Orland Park Supports Police” version and another sticker. (And come on, you know the cops would call it the “I hate police” sticker, right?) Now, as a policeman who appreciates the visual signs of community law enforcement support, I’d hope all the Orland Park motorists would opt for the original Thin Blue Line design. (Then, I’d also have to consider why someone who doesn’t truly support law enforcement might purchase the one that says s/he does. Hmm.)
But then, in a turn of events earlier this week, Mayor McLaughin announced changes to the design. Publicly voiced concerns led the Village to change the sticker flag’s color scheme to the traditional full red, white, and blue. Additionally, officials will allow motorists to cut off the Orland Park Supports Police banner.
This fracas goes beyond preventing the Village of Orland Park from becoming the next Wooley. Even offering an alternative is a bad idea. As a government entity that fields a police department, why open yourself up to the inevitable allegations that police officers’ decisions on whether or not to stop, cite, warn, arrest, or tow were influenced by what was or was not affixed to the windshield?
If you don’t think officers would take note of the motorist’s choice, you clearly do not understand police culture deeply enough. We would, even if purely out of curiosity. Whether it would affect the officer’s enforcement decision is doubtful, but still up for unwinnable debate.
And when a citizen does lodge that complaint, it’s a go-nowhere, lose-lose endeavor. It’s not like any officer in his or her right mind would ever openly admit, “Yeah, I wrote her two tickets. She cut off the ‘Supports Police’ portion.” At best, it’d be a fruitless argument regarding subconscious bias. With the national press this story is receiving, you’re actually opening up all your surrounding cities’ cops to the same allegation: an Orland Park vehicle sticker choice influences discretion. Why do that? This job is hard enough.
I applaud the Village for changing their mind. They could very well have dug in their heels and demanded full compliance; they took one of the high roads in this matter. But will motorists still feel intimidated into displaying the complete sticker, message and all? Would they fear punitive enforcement by officers who might view the removal of the supportive message as hatred or disrespect?
My advice to Orland Park officials is, if you’re going to embrace something as your village’s proclamation, let it be an exaggeration about being the universe’s epicenter of golf. Leave the choice up to your citizens on whether or not they support the men and women of your police department. This is coercion – tainting the authentic actions of those who do truly and voluntarily love their police.
 Village of Orland Park, Illinois; dated Feb 20th at 7:35pm; https://www.facebook.com/VillageofOrlandPark/photos/a.276208115781206.63053.275669905835027/1296948267040514/?type=3&theater