Residents weigh in on Springfield’s Blue Lives Matter controversy

by Tom Beck
Posted 4/21/22

A public meeting held by the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners April 13 became unusually contentious when residents spoke about the township’s Police Benevolent Association logo, which includes the Blue Lives Matter emblem. 

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Residents weigh in on Springfield’s Blue Lives Matter controversy

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A public meeting held by the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners April 13 became unusually contentious as residents and stakeholders weighed in on efforts to encourage the township’s Police Benevolent Association to change its logo, which includes the Blue Lives Matter emblem. 

“On its surface, the Blue Lives Matter flag with its Thin Blue Line imagery is a symbolic way to support law enforcement officers while honoring the fallen,” said Liza Meiris, secretary of the Cheltenham Area Branch NAACP, which includes Springfield Township. “Protecting those who protect us is something we should all be able to rally around. We are here because, for many members of our close-knit community, the Blue Lives Matter flag symbolizes division that we are desperately trying to shake.”

Dissenters, however, saw those who didn’t support the logo as being disrespectful to police officers in the township. 

“If you poll the majority of people who actually live in Springfield Township, they're going to tell you that they have nothing but respect for their police,” said Ray McMahon, a former Springfield Township police officer. But, he said, those who oppose use of the logo seem to believe that these same officers are racist. 

They seem to “truly believe that these good people … are racist when they go home” and that “somehow they are nasty people when they take their uniform off,” he said. “That's not the case.”

The PBA has not responded to numerous requests for comment.

Jim Dailey, another resident and former Springfield commissioner, echoed McMahon’s sentiment.

“Folks are coming up here, and with all due respect, praising the officers for everything except their judgment on [the logo issue],” he said. “To disparage half the community as this or that because they support law enforcement - we're doomed as a township.”

Despite objections from those who say police officers are being disrespected, most commenters who were against the logo said they supported the police generally. 

Nicole McInerney of Wyndmoor said she has a “respect and reverence for police officers” despite her opposition to the logo. 

“Growing up with retired Philadelphia police officers in my family and fully knowing the huge sacrifice that they and their families make, echoing the comments that everyone made here. I felt that every day. It was instilled in me and I, to this day, instill it strongly in my kids,” she added.

But unfortunately, McInerney said, the Blue Lives Matter flag raises hackles for some because it has been “co-opted by white supremacists” - and therefore should not be used in the PBA’s logo.

McInerney’s statement echoed that of many speakers at the Monday night meeting. Many said they support their local police department and want to see it succeed, but fear that the PBA is standing in its own way by allowing the organization to be represented by such a divisive logo.

“I'm going to have my sons go up to [Springfield Township police officers and] thank them for their service,” McInerney continued, but won’t allow her kids to attend PBA-sponsored events or play baseball in the PBA-sponsored Springfield Little League because “I don't want to condone that symbol.”

Springfield resident Adam Goren also spoke out against the logo.

“I'm really grateful for our police here. I feel like I do not communicate that frequently enough,” he said. But the logo “negates a lot of things that the Benevolent Association stands for, like maintaining a positive presence in the community.

“I know for a fact that the Springfield Township Benevolent Association does good work...this is why I'm having so much trouble understanding why the thin blue line flag is associated with the Benevolent Association.”

Another resident, Jenny French, told meeting attendees that when her husband died by suicide in 2011, officers from the Springfield Township Police Department supported her that night “until the wee hours.”

“The sensitivity they showed me that night and the next couple of weeks after that - that sensitivity they need to think about now,” she said. 

Throughout the meeting, many attendees took issue with the comments commissioner James Lee made to the Local, which were printed in last week’s issue. 

Lee referred to the Blue Lives Matter flag’s “close affiliation with white supremacist beliefs.” Several attendees who support the logo accused Lee of insinuating that Springfield police officers are white supremacists. 

Lee called that insinuation “a real leap.” 

“If you have a belief that this symbol means respect and love and support for the police, I get that. We're all assigning meaning to it,” said Lee, who noted that his father was a Philadelphia police officer. “I was surrounded by police growing up. I'll put my chops on respecting law enforcement against anyone,” he said.

Alan Garry, a resident who came to the meeting donning a blue PBA shirt, said the fact that the logo had been misappropriated by white nationalists shouldn’t mean that it can’t be used for what he said is its true purpose. 

“Just because a flag or an emblem is used for an unintended purpose, doesn't mean that its intended purpose should be disregarded,” he said in a comment directed at Lee. “Just as you would never do that with the American flag, flying proudly over your shoulder, we're asking that you don't do that with this emblem as well.”

In her statement, Meiris said the flag was designed in 2014 by Andrew Jacob, a white college student from Michigan who did so because he was upset over protests over police killings of Black citizens - which she believes suggests that it was established to create division. 

“Let that sink in for a moment,” she said. “A man who is upset that the public protested the murder of Black people at the hands of rogue police. [Jacob] argued that protesters did not show enough reverence for police in asking that police brutality be addressed.”

Survey shows police generally have residents’ trust

Just prior to the logo controversy, a poll conducted in Sept. 2021 regarding perceptions of police-community relations in Springfield Township by researchers from Temple University and The College of New Jersey showed that the Springfield Township Police Department was generally held in high regard by its constituents. 

According to the survey, 86% of respondents reported feeling “very safe” during the day, although that number was higher (89.7%) for white respondents than Black respondents (73.3%). 

Respondents also generally perceived the township’s police department positively based on certain qualifiers, including that officers are “clear, transparent and open in their interactions with community members,” that they “enforce the laws fairly,” they “treat everyone equally” and they use “good personal judgment when carrying out their duties.”

“The survey results clearly indicate that the majority of Springfield residents support both our police and our African-American neighbors,” said Temple researcher Erin McCrossan. “We need to find a way -- collectively -- to bridge the divide, heal past wrongdoings and build trust between our police and our African American community.”

Springfield Township’s Police Chief Michael Pitkow has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Freedom of Speech concerns

Towards the end of the meeting, many supporters of the logo questioned whether the township was unfairly trying to influence the freedom of speech of the PBA, which, unlike the police department, is a private organization and not under the jurisdiction of the township. 

“How did this become a township issue?” asked Bob Gillies, a resident and former Springfield Board Commissioner. “I don't know how we got to the point [where the board] is even involved in this conversation.”

Gillies was also a 2014 Republican candidate for the 154th district of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. 

Another resident, John Bleeker, noted the board’s power over the police department in determining hirings, firings and promotions.

“You guys decide who gets hired, who gets fired, who gets promoted,” he said. “You can ruin a person's career. When you ask for something once, it's a request no matter whether you say you did it nicely or not. Twice is a request. Three times is maybe a request. Five times and a public meeting is coercion.”

Board president Ed Graham, who is also the president of the Cheltenham area NAACP and has been the most vocal against the logo of all the commissioners, said that it was “not a legal matter.” Instead, it was “an open discussion” for the township to discuss the issues. 

Andrew Freimuth, the township solicitor, said that the goal of the meeting was to “receive public comment” and that the township wasn’t “directed to do anything of a legal nature.”

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