Police, veterans groups and residents have said they're upset the New Jersey Turnpike Authority removed American flags from highway overpasses in recent weeks — and apparently, so is Gov. Phil Murphy.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority acknowledged last week it had removed American flags from highway locations, saying it respects the flag but couldn't ensure care or proper placement for flags it didn't post itself.

The Robbinsville PBA Local No. 344, which said it planned to replace several flags that have gone missing or become damaged, said it found the authority had instead been replacing flags with signage about N.J.A.C. 19:9-1.13, which prohibits the installation of any unauthorized sign, item or structure on Turnpike property.

Murphy said Tuesday he's asked the Turnpike Authority to suspend taking down the flags.

"I didn't like what I heard. We are the greatest nation on earth even though we are far from perfect, and our flag represents that nation," Murphy said. "At least for the time being the Turnpike Authority has suspended doing that until we can find a good way forward."

The governor didn't say under what conditions or when the practice might resume.

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Several flags went up on overpasses hours after after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and have flown ever ever since, according to New Jersey State PBA president Patrick Colligan. The anniversary of the attacks is just days away, on Friday.

Speaking to Harry Hurley Tuesday morning on Atlantic City Townsquare Media station WPG Talk Radio — a sister station to New Jersey 101.5 —  the governor said he was not aware of the recent enforcement.

Murphy said during his routine novel coronavirus press briefings — during which he sometimes also discusses other state matters — that officials could still address any safety concerns particular flags or other signs might cause. But he said generally, the flags will be allowed to stay.

"I think we should be proud of our flag at every step even though we have a long way to go to perfect our union, and I stand with the flag," Murphy said.

New Jersey 101.5 asked Turnpike Authority spokesman Tom Feeney earlier Tuesday why the flags had been removed recently, when some had flown for years — but he didn't answer that question directly in an email exchange.

He provided a copy of a statement the authority had previously posted to a comment on its own Facebook page, saying flags posted by the agency to its facilities are treated with the utmost respect, but the authority can't monitor those it didn't put in place.

"While we appreciate the desire of some New Jersey residents to express their patriotism in these turbulent times by displaying flags on Turnpike and Parkway overpasses, Turnpike Authority regulations do not allow it, and for good reason," the authority wrote.

Feeney said flags had been removed from every overpass on the Turnpike and Parkway. He didn't say specifically when they were removed.

"There were dozens of overpasses involved. Some were American flags. Most were other kinds of banners or signs," he said.

Colligan said he was angry about the decision to take down the flags and said he support the efforts of Robbinsville PBA Local 144 to replace them. The Robbinsville PBA also posted to Facebook on Monday — before Murphy announced the removals would be suspended — that it would host an event Friday to replace the flags on its own, apparently in defiance of the Turnpike Authority rules.

"This order to remove all the flags is just ridiculous," Colligan said. "They've been up there for 19 years, they haven't caused any accidents. There's billboards, there's signs. It's stunning to me somebody made that decision on their own."

Colligan said "somebody should be man or woman enough to stand up and say 'it was my decision' and why they stand by it."

"I can't imagine there will be a large crowd approving their removal," Colligan told New Jersey 101.5.

Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried, speaking before Murphy's announcement that the flags would stay, said they've have flown over the half-dozen Turnpike overpasses in his borough since 2001 — and he is at a loss to explain their removal or the timing.

"They did not reach out to us in any way, shape or form, which is a little surprising. Our flags are maintained by the PBA. They are secured," Fried said.

The mayor said that Robbinsville helps the Turnpike Authority by plowing snow and maintaining the overpasses along with police and fire protection.

"We've never received a complaint in the 19 years they've been up" or had a traffic issue related to them, Fried said.

Robbinsville PBA Local 144 said on its Facebook page it purchased replacements for a dozen flags on the Turnpike and Route 195 overpasses within the past month.

"We cannot understand why the (Turnpike Authority) has suddenly decided to abandon a tradition of patriotism and respect for our veterans. It is not known what happened to the brand new flags that we put up, but we truly hope they were respectfully disposed of, if not displayed elsewhere," the PBA wrote.

Members will put the flags back up on Friday, according to the post.

"Not only are we going to put them back up but I intend to help put them back up, because it's the right thing to do," Fried said.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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