In a small city in Washington, a story about a police officer who was photographed wearing a Nazi tattoo on his forearm has rattled the local community. For about a month, local residents of Walla Walla have held rallies and sent hundreds of letters and emails to the local city council and the police department urging them to address the employment of Nat Small, a former US Marine scout sniper and current member of the local police force.
The controversy broke on June 4, when images of Small’s tattoo emerged on social media. The tattoo features the double lightning bolt symbol associated with the Nazi SS corps (Schutzstaffel), a murderous paramilitary group that pledged an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler and was instrumental in the execution of the Holocaust. The tattoo combines a brass knuckles and the name of Small’s fellow Marines Claudio Patino IV, who died in battle in 2010 during their service together in Afghanistan.
In an initial statement on Facebook, the Walla Walla Police Department (WWPD) defended Small and provided an alternative explanation to his tattoo. While it recognized that the symbol is associated with Nazi Germany, the department claimed that it was “not the intent or denotation of the tattoo on Officer Small’s arm.”
But after receiving a torrent of critical comments on the post, the WWPD deactivated its Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“We are aware officer Small has a tattoo in honor of his deceased fellow Marine scout sniper, Claudio Patino IV,” the force said in its now-deleted statement. “The two S’s under the rest of the tattoo is a recognition of both officer Small’s and Cpl. Patino’s status as scout snipers while in the Corps.”
“Understanding that some people might incorrectly infer otherwise from the tattoo if it were visible, officer Small wears and has always worn a long-sleeved shirt while on duty,” the statement said. “At the city of Walla Walla and the Walla Walla Police Department, we do not tolerate or condone racism or anti-Semitism of any kind.”
In addition, the WWPD shared a 2012 interview with Small on the military journal Stars and Stripes. The article highlights Small’s tattoo but fails to address the Nazi history of the insignia it’s based on. Instead, the tattoo is described as a symbol that “embodies a combination of sorrow, guilt and perspective, earned in combat.” (An editor’s note has since been added to the article, explaining the controversial nature of the tattoo.)
The WWPD has not responded to Hyperallergic’s repeated requests for comment. The Walla Walla City Council declined to comment but has scheduled a series of town hall meetings to address law enforcement issues in the city in response to the controversy.
Small’s use of the Nazi symbol is not an isolated incident. In 2010, members of a US Marines sniper team in Afghanistan posed for a photo in front of a flag featuring the SS symbol. The Marines Corps issued a statement condemning the use of the symbol and promised to investigate the incident. In 2012, the investigation concluded that the soldiers were acting out of ignorance and recommended no punishment.
“They didn’t realize that they were associating themselves with something that was racist, fascist,” a Marines spokesman told Reuters at the time. “They saw ‘SS’ and associated it with ‘scout sniper’ rather than the Nazis.” Although it was banned in 2012, the use of symbol still persists among Marines snipers, the New York Times reported.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a group that was vocal against the Nazi flag incident in 2010, is now threatening to file a lawsuit against the city of Walla Walla and its police department unless they take action to address Small’s tattoo.
“There is simply no excuse available for Officer Nat Small to continue to sport this shockingly evil Nazi SS symbology on his left forearm,” Michael Weinstein, the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said in a statement.
Leaders of the Walla Walla local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, have also criticized the WWPD for its inaction. “The WWPD’s response has been reactionary and defensive, eroding the trust of our community,” a statement by the synagogue reads.
Speaking with the local newspaper the Union-Bulletin, Small said that he understands the concerns but called the accusations against him “unfounded.”
“I don’t think an explanation is going to help some people,” he said.
On Wednesday, June 24, WWPD Chief Scott Bieber spoke at a rally in support of Small, organized by local right-wing groups. “When I became a police officer over 35 years ago I did not give up my first amendment right and neither did Nat Small,” Bieber said in front of hundreds of protesters. The protesters held signs in support of Small and the police and chanted “Keep the tattoo.”
In the past few years, local law enforcement organizations have granted Small a number of distinctions. In February of 2019, the Walla Walla Crime Watch, a volunteer-based local organizer, awarded Small the “2018 officer of the year” award for his “stellar performance at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy – bringing home every award given and in doing so ‘Returning to WWPD with Honor.’” Small’s supporters also herald him as a war hero; he was awarded the United States Armed Forces Bronze Star with a “V” device for his service in Afghanistan during 2010.
The Walla Walla metro area leans conservative; however, a group of concerned local residents continues to push for measures against Small ahead of the planned town hall meetings. One of those residents is Elyse Semerdjian, a Professor of Islamic World and Middle East History at Whitman College, who shared a letter she sent to city officials with Hyperallergic.
“We need to put an end to this debate now because an SS tattoo should not be a debate, not anywhere,” Semerdjian, who also heads the Syrian Studies Association, wrote in her letter. “Officer Small says that the tattoo means something else to him personally, but no one gets that creative license with a symbol of hate responsible for the death of six million Jews and millions more. The facts and history of the tattoo matter.”