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Santa Rosa Police Department draws criticism for ’thin blue line’ flag in Facebook post

Santa Rosa Police Department drew criticism in recent days for a since-deleted Facebook post featuring a banner depicting the controversial "thin blue line" flag, which for some has become a symbol associated with far-right extremism.

The post showed a photo of two Santa Rosa police officers holding the banner emblazoned with a black-and-white American flag with one blue stripe across the middle and the words “Heroes Work Here.” Police said it was gifted to officers anonymously by two local residents.

The department posted the image Sunday morning and, following a flood of negative reaction, removed the post on Tuesday.

In a message on the department’s Facebook page later that day, Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro said the post was deleted because of community outcry. The department also took down the banner from the front hallway of the Santa Rosa police station.

“While the post was intended to thank the community members who made the banner, and for the community at large for their continued support, it offended some who viewed it. For this, I sincerely apologize,” Navarro wrote.

Rubin Scott, president of the Sonoma County chapter of the NAACP, said that regardless of the intent, posting the thin blue line flag ― just before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday ― undercut for many people of color any message of unity or empowerment from local officials.

“It’s one of those markers, for certain people in our community, that means stay in your place, and if you don’t, there will be retaliation for it,” Scott said.

In an interview, Navarro said the Police Department sees the thin blue line flag as representing “the courage and the bravery that our staff show every single day.” But critics say it’s also an emblem of white supremacy and is often flown in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.

It was seen alongside Confederate flags at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, as well as among the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

After phone calls from community leaders and social media reaction, Navarro said it became apparent that some Santa Rosa residents equate the thin blue line flag with right-wing extremist groups.

“I’m aware that the flag was in demonstrations, but I didn’t personally see it as a national symbol of those particular factions,” Navarro said in the interview, noting he’s also observed the American flag at some far-right rallies. “Those are difficult things, when you see (flags) that represent something good are co-opted by extremist groups likes that.”

Going forward, the Police Department’s social media team will no longer use the thin blue line motif. There are no plans to adopt new steps for vetting for future social posts. But there will be additional training for staff and communication with managers to ensure they “understand our social media goals,” Santa Rosa Sgt. Chris Mahurin said.

The decision to remove the contentious post comes as Santa Rosa law enforcement and public officials are reckoning with the city’s racial inequities, which were brought to the fore during the summer protests in Santa Rosa and other parts of the county and nation after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody in late May.

In the ensuing months, Navarro and other Santa Rosa officials have met with advocacy groups in an effort to address social justice concerns as part of city’s “community empowerment plan.”

Scott of the area chapter of the NAACP has been involved in those meetings.

Shortly after the department’s Facebook post went live, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers began receiving a flurry of distraught texts and emails.

Rogers supported taking down the post, in large part because he said the symbol “has been used to push back against the Black Lives Matter movement by white supremacists.”

He said that “we want to be able to show appreciation to our officers” and that removing the post shouldn’t be seen as “diminishing the work that they do.”

Since Navarro published his message Sunday explaining the decision, the department’s Facebook page has received over 3,000 comments in response, many from residents disappointed the police department is distancing itself from the flag.

Navarro is thanking them for their support, but standing by the move.

“Our job is not to be political; our job is to use social media to try and engage with the community,” the police chief said. “And when there is some type of barrier that gets in the way, that’s when we make adjustments, and that’s what we did.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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