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Pierce County sheriff clashes with Pierce Transit leaders over use of 'thin blue line' stickers

The request was straightforward: remove stickers from three of Pierce Transit's 21 police vehicles. 

Sue Dreier, the agency’s CEO, made the request in a phone call to Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer on Jan. 19 — one day after a resident spotted one of the vehicles with the decal and complained, according to records obtained by KNKX Public Radio.  

The sticker in question: a black-and-white American flag with a blue line across the center, also known as the “thin blue line.” 

But despite concerns among top leaders at Pierce Transit — which pays the sheriff’s department $3.5 million a year for policing services — Troyer denied the request. It took him months to respond, and not long after, at least one other complaint about the decals was filed with the transit agency. 

Police officers say the “thin blue line” symbol is a solemn tribute to the sacrifices of law enforcement. Troyer cited that significance in a letter about his decision

But others say its meaning has changed. The image frequently appears at far-right extremist rallies. It was seen during the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 and at the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol earlier this year. More recently, a flag with the “thin blue line” was seen flying outside the Minnesota police department that is under scrutiny for the death of Daunte Wright, a Black man who died after being shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. 

Records show Pierce Transit leaders worried about the message the stickers would send to riders, especially those who identify as Black. The complaint sent to the agency in January interpreted the vehicle’s display of the “thin blue line” sticker as a “symbol of intimidation and anti-Blackness.”

Transit leaders thought they should have discretion over whether their brand is affiliated with the symbol.

“I am guessing as the customer, if we don’t want them on the vehicles they should come off,” chief operating officer Mike Griffus wrote in an email to Jim Kelly, the public safety chief for Pierce Transit who works for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. 

Pierce Transit values inclusion, Dreier wrote in a letter to Troyer more than a month after their initial phone call. The sheriff still hadn’t taken action on the matter. 

“These symbols have become polarizing and divisive,” Dreier wrote, “especially to people of color.”

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, who serves as chair of Pierce Transit’s board of commissioners, co-signed the letter. Tacoma police removed all “thin blue line” decals from patrol vehicles last summer, citing community concerns about divisive symbolism.  

“We encourage the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department to follow the lead of the Tacoma Police Department and find an alternative to the symbol,” the letter states. “We feel strongly this request represents the reality for many of our customers.”

In his letter denying the request nearly two months after the initial complaint was filed, Troyer reiterated the significance the “thin blue line” holds for his deputies. He dismissed the complainant’s interpretation of the symbol, calling it an “incredibly disheartening” misinterpretation. 

“We must continue to educate the community on the true meaning of the image,” Troyer wrote. “It is time to start listening and understanding. It is time to mend the seam, and for all of us as leaders to hold together our community as we confront the challenges that divide us and look to a better future."

Days after he issued his decision about the decals in writing to the transit agency, Troyer came under fire for an off-duty encounter he had with a Black newspaper carrier in his neighborhood. The January incident, first reported by The Seattle Times, prompted a massive countywide police response. The state Attorney General’s Office is investigating the sheriff's conduct for possible crimes. 

A review launched by the Pierce County Council, helmed by former U.S. attorney Brian Moran, is on hold while the state’s probe is underway. 

Troyer was elected sheriff in November 2020 after 19 years as the agency's spokesman. He assumed leadership at a time when the department has faced criticism for its role investigating the death of Manuel Ellis. Ellis was killed by Tacoma police last year. The state investigation in that case is ongoing.    

Dreier, CEO of Pierce Transit, declined an interview request from KNKX. She issued a joint statement with Mayor Woodards. In it, they underscored their disappointment with the sheriff's decision, while acknowledging it was his decision to make. 

“We do stand by our original belief that the decals should be removed,” they said in the statement. “It is our hope that the conversation about removing the stickers can continue and we can find common ground.” 

Both leaders said they are unaware of any other complaints about the decals other than the two identified in records obtained by KNKX. However, they acknowledge "some may have occurred at the staff level" that weren't elevated to the board or Pierce Transit leadership. 

Dreier and Woodards added that while this issue isn't a condition of the existing contract between Pierce Transit and the sheriff's department, "it is something that could be reviewed as part of that process in the future."

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.