The U.S. Flag: Symbol, Sign, and Service

The U.S. Flag: Symbol, Sign, and Service

As National Law Enforcement Museum staff pondered June holidays and events, we remembered Flag Day on June 14, a national observance approved by Congress and signed into law in 1949 to commemorate the adoption of the U.S. flag. Thinking about the holiday inspired us to examine the U.S. flag’s significance in the life of a law enforcement officer. The Museum’s collection reflects just some of the ways the flag is part of an officer’s life on the job.

Uniform: Nylon jumpsuit worn by Pasco (WA) Police Department K9 officer Ken Roske, 1990. 2012.17.10. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC.

Many federal, state and local officers wear the U.S. flag as part of a uniform, either in pin or patch form. Our collection includes both styles. The uniform at right was worn by a K9 officer in the Pasco (WA) Police Department. Note that the patch is on a local law enforcement officer’s uniform, not a federal uniform. Most local officers wear only the U.S. flag, not the flag of the jurisdiction they serve—why is that?

Unlike many other countries, the U.S. has no national police force. America’s founders wrote the U.S. Constitution to ensure that governing power, including law enforcement authority, was not solely concentrated in the hands of a national government. Decentralized law enforcement ensures that the vast majority of officers enforce laws made at local and state levels, although they simultaneously uphold rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The flag on their uniforms stands as a symbol of their civic role and responsibility, not just as officers of the municipalities they serve, but as citizens of the United States. The Museum will further explore how law enforcement’s national role plays out in a community or local setting. 

Poster: U.S. Secret Service recruitment poster, 1983-1995. 2011.1.15. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC.

Some officers have an especially close affinity with the American flag, perhaps reflecting the fact that law enforcement often pulls its members from the ranks of military veterans.

As law enforcement became more organized and formalized in the mid-19th century, its structure of authority became similar to the military’s. Veterans could find a comfortable home and steady work in such an organization.

Even today, as this U.S. Secret Service recruitment poster demonstrates, the skills gained in the military are often valuable assets for a variety of jobs at the federal level; this is also true at the local, state, and county levels.

Law enforcement service is filled with rituals that are often invisible to those outside the profession, and the U.S. flag plays a role in many of them.

Photograph: Kansas City (MO) Police Department during parade on street, honor guard stands in front in white hats, ca. late 1910s-early 1920s. 2007.114.619. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, DC.

There are ceremonies commemorating recruit graduations from training academies, promotions, retirements, line-of-duty deaths, and of course, ceremonies to bestow awards and honors. At most of these events, honor guards and color guards lend their precision, as well as the presence of the American flag, to the pageantry. 

The color guard in this picture is from Kansas City, Mo.  We’re not yet certain when the picture was taken, but a clue may be the position of the American flag.

Today’s U.S. Flag Code, which codifies flag etiquette, states that the U.S. flag should be the highest point of any group of flags. The flag’s dipped-forward position may indicate that the picture was taken in the early 1920s before the code was adopted in 1923 and further codified by Congress in 1942. 

If you’re a law enforcement officer, we’d love to hear what role the American flag has in your life on the job. What does it mean to you?  Where do you see it used daily or on special occasions? Why do you think it’s such an important symbol to the profession? Reach us at with your thoughts!


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