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Community divides as some call out officer's tattoo as racist

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Tattoo

The tattoo of Walla Walla police officer Nat Small, inked in 2010, has raised public outcry with its symbolism.

A Walla Walla police officer has become a local center of the racial crisis, and not because of his actions.

A tattoo on officer Nat Small’s forearm, inked in 2010 after his service as a scout sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps, includes a double lightning bolt “SS” unofficially adopted at the time by Marines in the elite shooting group despite being a historic symbol of Nazi white supremacy later officially denounced by the Marine Corps.

Since Thursday, when pictures of the tattoo were posted on social media channels, the ink has ignited division over public trust.

The Walla Walla Police Department has lauded Small as a war hero and exemplary staff member and denounced racism, including the killing of George Floyd by an officer in Minneapolis over Memorial Day weekend.

The tattoo, however intended, stands as a symbol of racism, critics say, and should not be allowed in the department where officers serve the public under the most vulnerable circumstances.

In his comment on social media, community member Ricardo Duran pointed out the connection between the symbol and German Nazism.

“If this man is going to serve as an officer, it should be covered up,” he said. “Even if he is a ‘nice guy.’

Small, 31, said Friday he understands concerns about the imagery.

“I don’t have a right to invalidate anyone’s views or concerns,” he said.

Without the background story on the tattoo, he believes it would be impossible for some to relate to his choice. Even with it, some won’t be convinced it’s not a racist symbol for him.

“I don’t think an explanation is going to help some people,” he said during a break in his patrol shift.

“I expect a certain level of scrutiny being a law enforcement officer, as we all do, even if I don’t agree with how (concerns) are being raised. Vulgar accusations are being thrown around, which are unfounded.”

The storm began with citizen posts Thursday on social media pages, including the Union-Bulletin’s, of photos of Small and the tattoo.

By late afternoon Thursday, the Walla Walla Police Department posted on its page an explanation of the tattoo as a symbol of Small’s service, rather than being racially motivated. The post shared an article about Small from military publication Stars and Stripes.

In a little more than 12 hours, the post garnered more than 1,100 comments between residents who know him defending the tattoo and others calling for his removal from the department or the removal of his ink. As of Saturday, that post had over 1,600 comments.

The department Friday followed with a statement shared via email by Chief Scott Bieber and on its official digital platform.

“We are aware officer Small has a tattoo in honor of his deceased fellow Marine scout sniper, Claudio Patino IV,” the statement said. “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.

“Unfortunately, a double lightning bolt S also carries with it a horrendous historical connotation from Nazi Germany. That is not the intent or denotation of the tattoo on Officer Small’s arm. 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.

“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.”

Small said he is not typically questioned about the double S symbol when people see his tattoo.

“It isn’t something that I find myself having to explain to people,” he said. “If somebody asks, it’s usually, ‘What does your tattoo mean?’ I always take that opportunity to explain what the tattoo is, what it means and who it’s in honor of.”

The story has been well-documented and was recounted in 2018 when Small joined the Walla Walla force, more than seven years after his military service ended. Details came from a copy of his bronze star consideration letter from the Marine Corps Headquarters.

“His tattoo is a reminder of what he lost June 22, 2010, the day he was pulled off the front lines of Afghanistan with the blood of his fallen friend, Cpl. Claudio Patino, soaking through his fatigues,” the Stars and Stripes piece said in 2012.

“During the battle, Patino crested a ridge ahead of his fellow Marines, exposing himself to enemy fire so they wouldn’t have to. Patino died as Small cradled him that day in a tiny village in southern Afghanistan. But the memory of the 22-year-old California native is preserved in the ink-on-flesh memorial on Small’s arm — a lightning bolt double ’S’ centered by ‘Patino.’”

Small returned fire and killed one of the enemy fighters, but a rocket-propelled grenade exploded next to him. Despite his injuries, Small continued to return fire with one hand, using the other to move his fallen comrade to a safer position.

He received air support and, during lulls in the enemy fire, attempted to provide CPR to the man who had been shot, according to previous U-B coverage during this appointment with the city.

The young Marine got his fallen friend into a helicopter and, while still under fire, went back and recovered the grenade launcher that injured him. Small did not tell his team about his injuries until after they returned to safety.

He received a Bronze Star of Valor and a Purple Heart.

Small said he got the tattoo in 2010 with the symbol commonly used among scout snipers. In 2012, Marine Corps General James F. Amos responded to public outcry over a photograph of a group of scout snipers posing with a flag containing a Nazi symbol.

“I want it to be clear that the Marine Corps unequivocally does not condone the use of any such symbols to represent our units or Marines,” he wrote at the time.

An investigation into the group of Marines from the photo determined they “were ignorant of the connection of this symbol to the Holocaust and monumental atrocities associated with Nazi Germany,” Amos wrote.

Small said Friday he recalls the Marine Corps addressing it at the time.

As the Walla Walla Police Department recruits new officers, a post seeking applicants continued Saturday to be peppered with comments about “Nazi tattoos” as a qualification, among those with serious interest in the job.

Capt. Chris Buttice said it seems no move made by the department will be correct.

“People are angry,” he said. “At this point, it doesn’t matter if we step left, if we step backwards. It’s not going to be right.”

Public trust in the department, he said, has been strong, according to citizen surveys. But damage nationally is so great that it’s reaching a local level.

“We have built the department on a culture of people doing the right thing,” Buttice said. “The chief is very committed to the core values of service, pride and integrity.”

He said Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, which has led to the public uprising over race, is equally troubling to officers.

“It’s the most atrocious act I’ve ever seen,” he said.

But when it comes to change at the local department, he’s not certain there’s one to make.

“I don’t know how to change Nat,” Buttice said. “He’s the most exemplary employee there is.”

Meanwhile, as Small continued patrol Friday, he wondered too what the disruption will mean.

“I continue moving forward,” he said. “Continue doing the right thing. Continue doing my job.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.