Oconomowoc Mayor Robert Magnus ordered the city’s police chief to take down the thin blue line flag outside the Police Department, a legislator and alderman tell Wisconsin Right Now. It’s got some officers and citizens incensed.
Rep. Barb Dittrich, the Republican lawmaker who represents Oconomowoc, confirmed to Wisconsin Right Now that a police officer complained to her “that the mayor ordered the police chief to take the thin blue line flag down.”
“While I get along with the mayor, I’m disappointed that he made this decision especially during police appreciation week,” Dittrich said. She said she asked the mayor about it, and he confirmed that he did order the thin blue line flag removed.
We reached out twice each to Magnus and Police Chief James Pfister, but neither responded. [Update! Since we ran this story, we received emails the mayor wrote a constituent, promising that the flag will go back up and saying it was “wrong” to take it down. See the emails here.]
We also heard that some officers were putting the thin blue line flag on their cars instead. We did see an Oconomowoc police SUV with a thin blue line flag on the back this week.
At the May 18 Common Council meeting, a citizen called for the police officers to take a no-confidence vote in the mayor because of the flag’s removal. He gave his name as Chris Kowieski, an Oconomowoc resident. He is chief operating officer at Wisconsin State Fair Park.
“It’s my understanding that the mayor’s ordering the lowering of the thin blue line flag…” he said. He gave a history of National Police week.
“Let me tell you what the thin blue line flag means to me. I will use this analogy to humanize it to demonstrate the disrespect and idiocy that lowering the flag demonstrates,” he said as the mayor listened.
“If the flag were a picture, it would be pixelated; if you looked closer, you would see the faces of the individuals of law enforcement. Those individuals are members of out community. You probably know some.. you are probably friends of some. One of my friends was recently shot in the line of duty, and he lives in this community. They are fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. They wake up every morning to work just like the rest of us, but they go to work every morning with a better chance than most of not going home. They do this for the betterment of our community and country. Without them, there is chaos and anarchy. They are the people you call when others come to harm you, and they keep us safe.”
He added: “To order the lowering of the flag at all is a slap in the face… to do it during the memorial week on which those who lost their lives protecting you is a despicable action that can only come from a weak leader who bends to a minority with questionable grievances. I demand that you raise the flag. I recommend that the city of Oconomowoc police force take a vote of no confidence in the mayor. I hope enough people find out about this reprehensible display of leadership and character by our mayor that you not only lose the next election but are humiliated by the results. You have exposed yourself as a weak-kneed Marxist liberal in a community that has no use for it.” The mayor didn’t respond but called up the next speaker.
Watch the citizen’s remarks here at 21:45 in.
We also spoke to Oconomowoc Ald. Lou Kowieski (he is the brother of Chris). He was a write-in candidate for mayor. “He (Magnus) did order it down,” Kowieski told WRN. He said he did not know whether the mayor had “referred to it as racist” though. “I believe it was up for police week,” he said. He also said the mayor ordered the police chief to take down the flag, and that it was then taken down.
The alderman said he didn’t “think it was the right decision.” He said that he and another alderman are planning to introduce an ordinance that would outline “the flying of sanctioned flags and non-sanctioned flags.” For example, the American flag and state and municipal flags are sanctioned flags. Non-sanctioned flags “could include the thin blue line flag, red line flag, Tree City USA,” and so on, he said.
“I support flying the blue line flag,” he said. “There needs to be a policy to appropriately display it and where and how.” For example, he doesn’t believe it should replace the American flag or fly above it, but perhaps it could be on a separate pole or flown beneath the American flag.
Asked why he supports flying the thin blue line flag, Kowieski said, “I support our police officers and overall our first responders. Whether it’s a blue line flag or red line flag, when you go to work and potentially aren’t coming back as a result of providing your service to the community, you should be recognized and supported appropriately.” He said he and other aldermen started a Facebook page called “Oconomowoc Supports the Blue.”
We drove past the Oconomowoc Police Department on May 18, and, sure enough, the flag is not flying there.
All of this occurred at the tail end of National Police Week, which ended May 15.
Magnus is serving a two-year term that runs from April 21, 2020 – April 19, 2022. He was labeled a political newcomer when he sought office. He emphasized his business background and many years living in the community.
This comes on the heels of the controversy over the UW-Madison police chief banning the thin blue line symbol.
What does the flag mean? According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, to law enforcement, the thin blue line means “police are the force that stands between law and order and chaos, the force that safeguards society against disorder.” Thin Blue Line USA explains, “The black space above the blue line represents society, order and peace, while the black below, crime, anarchy, and chaos. The Thin Blue Line running between them, ‘law enforcement,’ keeps crime from descending into society.”
The flag has caused controversies throughout the U.S. as some have argued it’s a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. The thin blue line first showed up as a law enforcement reference in the 1950s, however, when Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Parker used the term in a force dealing with corruption controversies. In 1854, a British regiment in the Crimean War was known as the Thin Red Line because of its red uniforms, when it “stood its ground against a Russian cavalry charge,” the Tribune reported.
Editor’s note – we removed a line that an officer said the mayor felt the flag was racist because our original source now says the officer was wrong about that part. We still haven’t heard from Mayor Magnus despite three attempts to hear his side.