The region's most senior police officer has expressed concern at the increasing level of disrespect shown towards the Australian flag.Southern Region Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch said that while he did not want to stifle people's expression of patriotism, the flag was a national emblem, not a gimmick."Our national flag is not a tea towel, it's not a picnic blanket. It needs not to be treated as such," he said.The region became a sea of red, white and blue on Australia Day with more inventive uses for the flag displayed than in previous years.But many of those uses flew in the face of protocols - such as never allowing the flag to touch the ground and, if displayed at night, not being illuminated.Mr Murdoch urged people to bear in mind that more than 100,000 Australians died in defence of both the flag and the nation."When people disrespect our flag we are disrespecting the memory and sacrifice of those Australians," he said."By ostensibly whipping it up on Australia Day and draping yourself in the flag and then sitting on it as a beach towel down at the park ... You don't respect it one minute and disrespect it the next."NSW RSL president Don Rowe said that, following the Cronulla race riots in December 2005, there had also been an alarming number of people wearing the flag to intimidate others.He said the RSL had been battling unsuccessfully for years to have an act of parliament passed making it an offence to deface, burn or desecrate the flag."People with a small Australian flag on a stick, waving it, or stuck in their back packs, that's fine."But when you have people dragging it along behind them and using it as an excuse to beat their chests about being an Australian, that's not fine."Wollongong RSL sub-branch president Peter Poulton said a national education program was needed to ensure people were aware of the various protocols attached to the flag."People are embracing the flag, which is great, but many are embracing it, not respecting it," he said.Mr Murdoch said a balance was needed between respect and disrespect."I'm not saying people shouldn't be patriotic and proud of who they are. "But before people use the flag, they need to take some time to stop and think what it represents and who it represents, and that's all Australians."Meantime, Mr Murdoch said 39 arrests had been made on Australia Day throughout the Southern Region, indicating that most people attended the festivities in the true spirit of the event.