Shortly after moving back home to Sartell, Minn., this spring, Hannah Kosloski saw a "Thin Blue Line" flag decal on a police squad car.

Kosloski, 22, did a double take. Surely, city officials wouldn't approve of the decal if they knew the flag's meaning had been co-opted by a political movement, right? Kosloski thought.

Kosloski, who uses they/them pronouns, e-mailed the City Council and police chief, sat down with Mayor Ryan Fitzthum and started an online petition to remove the decals, which garnered more than 500 signatures.

"As a citizen and taxpayer, I think it's offensive. I think it's tone-deaf, and I think you're actively alienating community members of color," Kosloski said.

Fitzthum declined to comment on the decals, but in an e-mail response to Kosloski reviewed by the Star Tribune, Fitzthum said he respected Kosloski's perspective but said the decal "truly represents the courage and sacrifice that our officers display day in and day out while keeping our community safe."

Fitzthum wrote that the phrase "Thin Blue Line" is used on the MN State Law Enforcement Memorial on the State Capitol grounds, as well as on Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association license plates.

"We firmly believe we can support one thing without being in opposition or against another," Fitzthum wrote. "We continue to simultaneously stand against police brutality, for [Black] lives (and all lives), and for the courage and sacrifice of law enforcement."

The "Thin Blue Line" controversy comes amid debates across the nation over the meaning of pro-police flags after a version of the flag was carried at the "Unite the Right" rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., and at the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In January, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's police chief banned officers from using the flag's imagery while on duty. And in May, Bloomington Mayor Tim Busse apologized after flying the flag in recognition of National Police Week after members of an anti-racist coalition and other organizations complained.

"At some point recently, [the "Thin Blue Line" flag] has been appropriated by some far right-wing, including some clearly racist, groups," said Pedro A.G. dos Santos, associate political science professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University. He also serves on the board of #UniteCloud, a grassroots group working to reduce racial and cultural tensions.

Dos Santos compared the "Thin Blue Line" flag to Black Lives Matter: Both are associated with broader social movements, but both also have been politicized.

"The 'Thin Blue Line' flag has the same thing. It has a social element to it, a cultural element, but there's a political element that you cannot separate now," he said. "It's inappropriate, especially in this divisive political time."

Kosloski's online petition spurred a slew of negative comments about Kosloski, they said, as well as a counterpetition that says in its description: "Some moron decided to start a petition to force the Sartell police department to remove their thin blue line decals off the squad cars. This petition is to [counteract] that." That petition has been signed by nearly 1,200 people.

The vitriol doesn't surprise Kosloski, who grew up in Sartell and describes the city as a historically white place where families come to raise their kids.

"It's a suburban bubble. The community itself is so closed off from any other kind of living. All they know is: My neighbors look like me. My neighbors sound like me," Kosloski said. "I understand that perspective because I grew up here. I understand why [city officials are] pro-policing. I understand why [they] don't necessarily believe systemic racism is a real thing. I used to have those beliefs. I will admit that."

City Administrator Anna Gruber responded to one of Kosloski's e-mails in mid-May. The response, written on behalf of the mayor and council, states officials are "not ready to make a decision on the 'Thin Blue Line' decals on the Sartell Police Department vehicles" and that officials have "a duty to respond to the community as a whole and have work to do in providing an avenue for gathering communitywide input on important topics such as this."

Kosloski said they are disappointed and disheartened but are forging ahead with their commitment to get the decals removed by filing a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I want to force their hand to think about this stuff," Kosloski said.

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny