This article has been updated to reflect a correction.
A national civil rights organization says it will file a suit against the city of Walla Walla if a local police officer’s double lightning bolt “SS” tattoo isn’t removed or altered or the officer isn’t removed from the Walla Walla Police Department.
In an emailed letter sent to Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber and Walla Walla Mayor Tom Scribner, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation called for Bieber to “do the right thing.”
City officials said this morning they are unaware of or had not read the letter from Michael Weinstein, founder and president of the organization.
Weinstein said his civil rights advocacy group had been in contact with board members of the Beth Israel Congregation in Walla Walla regarding the tattoo worn by police officer Nat Small.
In a letter to the Union-Bulletin published Wednesday, Beth Israel representatives said the synagogue’s board is concerned about the police department’s defensive and reactionary response to community criticism about Small’s tattoo and the lack of police department transparency on the issue.
Not only does that concern Jews, but Bieber’s response reflects “a greater concern about the treatment of Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ people by police forces across this county,” the letter said. Board members hope a door will open the for dialogue between the police force and the Walla Walla community on national issues.
Police Chief Scott Bieber did not respond to Weinstein’s missive this morning.
“I have yet to see the letter so I have no comment on it,” Bieber said.
City attorney Tim Donaldson said he was also unaware of the letter and would not comment until he could review it.
After a picture of the tattoo on Small’s forearm was posted on Facebook and then widely circulated last week, the tattoo and Small’s role in the police department became a source of controversy.
The police department and Small have said the double lightning bolt “SS” tattoo is related to the officer’s scout sniper service in the U.S. Marine Corps, despite its historic symbolism for Nazi white supremacy.
The image has been denounced by the Marine Corps, in part due to efforts from Weinstein’s organization.
In 2012 a group of Marines posed with their sniper rifles in front of a blue flag with white Nazi “SS” runes.
The picture had been taken in 2010 in Afghanistan and the photo’s description says the “SS” flag had been “adopted and used by the Marines in reference to scout sniper.”
Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation called for Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos to order an investigation of the photo’s origins, according to Reuters news organization.
Weinstein said his foundation is dedicated to fighting for the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state for military service men and women, representing more than 68,000 active duty U.S. service people, “about 95% of whom self-identify as practicing Christians,” he said.
“We did take on this issue in 2012 when members of the U.S. Marines were infuriated about the use of the ‘SS’ Nazi symbol for the scout snipers that were in Afghanistan,” he said. “It took the Marine Corps about 24 hours to ban the use of the symbol.”
In his communication to Bieber and Scribner, Weinstein called Small’s depiction of the “schutzstaffel” or Nazi “SS,” disgusting and despicable, saying use of the imagery is inexcusable under any circumstance.
Weinstein’s letter said as national and global outcry over “blatant police abuses of people of color and other minorities,” it is disingenuous and dishonest for the department to argue Small’s tattoo is fine since the officer covers it with a long sleeve police uniform while on duty.
“Police officers are supposed to be inextricably intertwined into the very fabric of their communities, especially in a small town such as Walla Walla. When Officer Nat Small is ‘off duty’ and blatantly displaying that Nazi SS tattoo for the whole community to see and absorb, it sends a distinct message of indescribable fear and loathing especially to your Jewish and other minority communities which you are sworn to serve and protect,” Weinstein said in his letter.
“While we respect Officer Small for what he did, which was very gallant and very brave in Afghanistan, it is inconceivable to us that he is unaware of the connection to the Nazi’s,” he said this morning.
The people who have come forward to the organization for help do not feel like an apology from the police department would be enough, Weinstein said.
“Our job is to be the voice for those in Walla Walla that feel they have no voice without revenge or political retaliation. And so I am speaking for the members of the LGBTQ community, the Jewish community, people of color and of Christians and everyone who has reached out,” he said.
His organization calls for an alteration of the tattoo to remove the “SS” symbol “so it will no longer display the Nazi iconography, the iconography of genocide,” or removal of the tattoo.
If neither of those is selected, the organization seeks the departure of Small from the force, either through firing or resignation.
If none of those options are selected, the organization will file a suit.
“Our litigators are preparing a federal lawsuit. The plaintiff will be citizens of Walla Walla, and we will go in with an aggressive federal lawsuit against the city of Walla Walla, the police department and the mayor,” Weinstein said. “We hope that that doesn’t happen.”
Weinstein said he has received no responses from the mayor or police chief
He said it is a nonpartisan issue.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to understand this or be a person of color or LBGTQ at all,” he said. “You should be able to look at this and understand how hurtful this is.”
“It is not about him. He is paid by the people to be a public servant and in a democracy … we rule by persuasion,” he said. “And this is a democracy, we are a representative democracy, we rule by persuasion, lawsuits persuade.”
An anonymous letter Weinstein received said, “The Police Department claims they have him cover it while on duty. This isn’t good enough. What if I see this officer and his tattoo at the grocery store and the next day in a police capacity. I would fear for my safety and my fellow citizens as well.”