San Francisco’s police union is once again stirring up controversy, this time for giving officers face masks depicting a flag that has been taken to symbolize the Blue Lives Matter movement.
Numerous officers were seen wearing the masks while responding to a housing protest in the Castro on Friday afternoon, prompting outrage among city leaders and on social media.
The masks, distributed by the San Francisco Police Officers Association to protect against the spread of coronavirus, feature a black and white American flag with a blue line across the middle.
The Thin Blue Line flag became a symbol for counter protesters during the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged against police shootings in late 2014. The pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement faced criticism for missing the point of the initial cause.
When shown a video of a row of officers wearing the face masks, Supervisor Shamann Walton reserved judgment but said, “that looks more like something you see below the Mason Dixon Line.”
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Phelicia Jones, an activist from the group Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community – Justice for Mario Woods, said she was not sure what the masks depicted.
But if the masks are a representation of the Blue Lives Matter movement, then Jones said they remind her of the severe disparities between black and white San Franciscans.
“How many black people died in San Francisco who were shot by police?” Jones said. “It brings up Mario Woods… It brings in mind how we are suffering during COVID. It brings to mind institutionalized racism within the health industry.”
In one of the most controversial police shootings in recent San Francisco history, a group of officers fatally shot Woods, a young black man who had a knife, in late 2015. The shooting kicked off police reforms that are still underway today.
John Crew, a criminal justice advocate and retired ACLU attorney, said it doesn’t matter whether the masks feature a Blue Lives Matter flag or any other message. Under San Francisco Police Department policy, on-duty political activity is not allowed.
“The definition of a uniform is that its uniform,” Crew said. “There is no option to add your own statements, affiliations, whatever.”
In addition to the flag, the masks feature an SFPOA logo.
“The POA is a political organization,” Crew said. “They can’t alter their uniforms to say ‘POA’ anymore than they can alter their uniforms to say ‘ACLU’ or ‘Donald Trump.’”
Crew said the fact that the masks feature a Blue Lives Matter flag only make the situation worse.
“It’s not just the message that it sends to the black community,” Crew said. “It’s the mesasge that it sends to San Francisco. The POA is still going to act like they don’t have to adhere of the policies of the department or the values of this city.”
“Who the heck in the command staff, anybody from sergeant and above who saw these masks, thought that this would be okay?” Crew said.
Police Commissioner John Hamasaki also called the masks a “clear policy violation” and urged Police Chief Bill Scott to remove them in a fiery email Friday.
“This raises real concerns for me about the battle for the heart and soul of the department,” Hamasaki said. “Are we moving forward or being dragged into the pre-reform days of SFPD?”
Hamasaki is calling for a Police Commission meeting to be held May 13 — the first since the coronavirus crisis started.
“Without oversight, it appears that some in the department are openly flouting our policies, with the endorsement of the POA,” Hamasaki said. “Let’s not let the bad actors drag us back into the past.”
SFPOA President Tony Montoya shrugged off the criticism.
“With all the real danger and challenges we face today, these folks should stop grasping at straws, because they’re banned in San Francisco,” Montoya said. “Officers are wearing masks to keep the public safe as they continue to serve our city.”
But in response to the masks being perceived as “divisive or disrespectful,” Scott said he would work with the police union to provide “alternative, neutral personal protective equipment.”
“As an affirmation of the principle of safety with respect for all, we will replace the personal protective equipment to which some community members have objected,” Scott said.
The chief also said the Thin Blue Line was “adopted more than three decades ago as symbolism for the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial.”
“It was developed — and for most of us in law enforcement, remains — a meaningful expression to honor fallen police officers,” Scott said.
“We welcome the opportunity to have a productive conversation about ways to honor first responders and others during this public health emergency,” he said.
The police union has previously come under fire for its responses to Black Lives Matter.
In 2016, the union ran an image of two dogs in its montly journal that appeared to be making fun of the movement. One dog had a sign around its neck that said “Black Labs Matter.”
The union was also among the first to criticize then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.
This story has been updated to include additional information.