JTA — A synagogue in Walla Walla, Washington, has called on the town’s police department to apologize for defending an officer who sports a tattoo resembling the insignia of the SS, the feared Nazi paramilitary force.
“The WWPD’s response has been reactionary and defensive, eroding the trust of our community,” said the letter posted Wednesday by Congregation Beth Israel. “We would like a public apology from the WWPD, Chief Bieber, and Officer Small, acknowledging our concerns about the symbol’s history and their dismissal of its connection to genocide.”
Nathan Small is the officer who sports the tattoo, a relic of his service in the US Marines. His sniper unit in Afghanistan adopted the insignia until the military brass shut it down in 2012. The unit said it thought the symbol represented as two lightning bolts stood for “sniper scouts” and was not aware of its Nazi origins.
Photos of the tattoo appeared last week on social media. The police department posted a defense of Small’s tattoo on its Facebook page, noting his service. Following expressions of outrage, the department said it understood the connotations of the symbol and said that Small wears long-sleeved shirts to cover it.
This week, Chief Scott Bieber shut down the department’s social media accounts, saying “we had trolls and zealots trying to scream as loudly as they can for their own cause,” the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin said in a report Tuesday. He said he would reach out to minorities, including the Jewish community, for face-to-face conversations.
Evan Heisman, a synagogue board member who signed the letter, said the synagogue would have complained in any case, but the insensitivity was especially jarring given the national conversation over police brutality.
“This is not one instance of a tattoo, it’s symbolic of how police forces treat their communities where they say they don’t think they’re wrong,” said Heisman, who added that when he first made a call to the police to inquire about the tattoo, a police officer yelled at him for five minutes.
The synagogue’s letter stops short of demanding action, but a Jewish person in the town of nearly 33,000 sought the assistance of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the organization that pressed the military to ban the use of the symbol in 2012. The foundation wants the police to make Small remove or disguise the tattoo, or to fire him if he resists.
The person who brought in the religious freedom group spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on condition of anonymity.
“Just knowing a police officer was sporting the SS insignia was frightening,” this person said. “We don’t feel that an officer covering his arm is enough.”