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San Francisco police chief orders officers to stop wearing ‘thin blue line’ face masks

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Rachel Swan

San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott is seeking “neutral” face coverings for the city’s rank and file, an effort to defuse tensions after officers patrolled a May Day protest in controversial masks emblazoned with the “thin blue line” flag.

Members of San Francisco Police Officers Association ordered and distributed the masks, each adorned with a flag that resembles the American flag, except it’s midnight blue with a blue stripe across the middle. That blue line traditionally “represents law enforcement’s separation of order and chaos,” said union president Tony Montoya.

It’s associated with the Blue Lives Matter movement, a display of unity and pride among police officers in reaction to Black Lives Matter. Scott acknowledged in a statement that some may perceive the symbol as “divisive and disrespectful.”

Officers wore their identical flag-themed masks to oversee a demonstration in the Castro district Friday, during which two homeless women locked themselves inside a vacant house. The women sought to highlight San Francisco’s affordability crisis and increase pressure on Mayor London Breed to put all homeless people in hotels amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

But to some people, the police officers, with their matching face garments, became stars of the show.

Retired American Civil Liberties Union lawyer John Crew was irate when he saw the masks, partly because of the flag, but largely because each one had a San Francisco Police Officers Association logo.

“This is two issues combined,” Crew said.

“The thin blue line is a political symbol,” he noted, referring to the flag and stripe. “And it’s a POA-branded mask. It’s like wearing a political button.”

He viewed the insignia as a direct challenge to a long-standing policy that bars police from expressing political opinions while wearing their uniforms. The police union has sparred with Scott throughout his three-year tenure, though according to Crew, the power struggle between the department and the association existed long before the chief arrived.

“It makes you wonder if it was some sort of stunt and if they were trying to provoke a controversy,” he said.

Montoya, the police union president, was incensed by what he saw and Scott’s capitulation to “the haters who have made a cottage industry out of carping, complaining and stereotyping the police.” He said the union had shown the masks to the chief’s command staff, and several of them had asked for more than one.

Even without the police union branding, the blue flag and stripe are potent images that invite various interpretations. Scott described them as a sincere expression “to honor fallen police officers,” a sentiment that’s more fraught with meaning with so many first responders risking their lives during the pandemic.

Critics, however, perceive Blue Lives Matter as an attempt to undermine a civil rights movement and excuse violence perpetrated by police officers. Some see it as a means to classify police as a separate, superior group — one central credo of the Blue Lives Matter movement is that killing a police officer should count as a hate crime.

Scott offered to replace the masks “as an affirmation of the principle of safety with respect for all.”

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rswan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @rachelswan

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