A handful of South Jersey towns have painted a blue line on roads near their police departments to express support for officers, drawing mostly praise from residents but also concerns from critics that the lines could be polarizing rather than unifying.
The lines, painted between yellow lane dividers at the request of mayors and public works officials, have appeared in Cherry Hill, Haddon Heights, and Oaklyn in Camden County, Mantua Township and Woolwich Township in Gloucester County, and Westampton Township and Evesham Township in Burlington County.
"We have only received positive feedback from our community," Evesham Police Lt. Joseph Friel said.
But not everyone supports the lines.
In North Jersey, a borough councilman last month suggested they send the wrong message and could be portrayed as racist. Another critic, John Burns, chairman of Black Lives Matter New Jersey, said they divert attention from issues such as racial bias by officers and are a response to a perceived threat.
"They feel as though Black Lives Matter is attacking police officers individually," Burns said. "We're saying that there is a systemic problem."
Police say the lines symbolize the bond between communities and officers.
"That line shouldn't represent one side vs. the other," Cherry Hill Police Chief William Monaghan said. "It should be all-inclusive of the community."
Mayor Chuck Cahn personally paid to have the line painted shortly after Labor Day outside the township's municipal building. Officials in other towns have used private donations or resources such as existing paint.
Monaghan said officers view the line as a morale booster - a reminder the majority of the nation's officers are good, even if the bad ones often make the headlines.
"There has been this broad brush applied to the profession as a whole because of the actions of a few," Monaghan said.
The fatal shootings of black males by officers in recent years - from New Jersey to Minnesota to Oklahoma to North Carolina - have stirred nationwide calls for police reform.
At the same time, the slayings in July of five officers in Dallas and three officers in Baton Rouge, La., have heightened calls to support police departments.
Whether the blue lines play a role in the national debate is a point of contention.
In Closter, a small borough in Bergen County, Councilman Brian Stabile objected to the idea of a blue line last month.
"We're a town that's less than 5 percent black and there is a major national race issue in this country," he said, according to NorthJersey.com. "The prism of the nation right now says that if you put a blue line there, you are a racist."
Stabile, reached last week, declined to elaborate on his concerns, but said about the issue: "I'm happy that it's being discussed."
The largest demographic in most of the South Jersey municipalities with blue lines is white.
In Camden, where blacks and Hispanics make up 95 percent of the population, police have not considered having a line painted. Neither have police in Willingboro, where blacks and Hispanics make up 80 percent of the population.
In Burlington City, where blacks and Hispanics make up 40 percent of the population, some officers have discussed the idea, but no official action has occurred, Capt. John Fine said.
Police in towns with the tribute say the intention is not to take sides in the national conversation on race relations and policing.
"To me, all lives matter," said Bruce Koch, the chief in Haddon Heights, where a public works official painted blue for police and red for firefighters along Station Avenue last month. "It's not a black thing. It's not a blue thing. All lives matter."
In Mantua Township, Robert Zimmerman, the deputy mayor and a former police chief in nearby Pitman, declined to talk about what the blue lines mean to the national debate.
"I'm not even going to respond," Zimmerman said. "This is purely the township showing its support for the local police department."
The "thin blue line," as it's called, has historically been used to honor fallen officers and symbolize the duty of police to protect citizens from criminals.
It's unclear who started the most recent trend of painting the line on streets. Residents in other states such as Ohio and Texas have painted small blue lines on their curbs.
In Pennsylvania, the trend of adding the tribute to roads has been less widespread than in New Jersey. Hanover Township in the Lehigh Valley painted a blue line in the summer for the Colonial Regional Police Department, which serves the area. Philadelphia police said they have not seen the tribute on streets outside their stations.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey have banned it on state-run roads.
Transportation agencies in both states made the decision out of caution, because the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which specifies how roads should be painted, does not say whether the blue line is allowed.
Some say that while the tribute is harmless, it should not distract from concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has criticized law enforcement for using lethal force and discriminating against blacks.
At Cherry Hill's Unitarian Universalist Church, which held two forums this year to discuss Black Lives Matter, someone in March spray-painted the word Blue over Black on a sign reading "Black Lives Matter." Several signs with the message were also stolen.
Rohn Hein, the church's lay leader for social responsibility, said he believes the vandalism stems in part from the long history of discrimination against black communities, from slavery to Jim Crow laws to unequal levels of incarceration.
"The message is still the same as far as I'm concerned," Hein said. "The message is that our society, American society, does not value black lives like they should. And we need to have an examination of why that is the case."