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Civil rights group to sue police over Marine war hero, police officer’s tattoo for Marine who died in battle

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A national civil rights organization is calling for a Walla Walla police officer to change his double lightning bolt tattoo or be fired.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation threatened legal action against Walla Walla in a letter Tuesday night unless the department and city take some action to address the officer’s tattoo, the letter said.

“There is simply no excuse available for Officer Nat Small to continue to sport this shockingly evil Nazi SS symbology on his left forearm,” said Michael Weinstein, the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

The foundation is aimed at protecting the rights of people to practice their religion without interference by the government. So far they’ve represented more than 66,000 on duty, veteran and civilian personnel in the armed services.

The double lightning bolt was the unofficial symbol of Marine scout snipers. It has been part of the unit’s history since at least 2004, according to the Marine Times. It became the center of a controversy in 2012 after multiple pictures of soldiers with the symbol surfaced.

The foundation was among the groups calling for the unit to stop using the image.

An uproar in 2012, led Gen. Jim Amos to call for an investigation, which found the Marines did not realize the connection between the two symbols.

It now has been at the center of a local controversy in Walla Walla, after a member of the public shared a photo of it to social media pages, according to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. On Thursday, police officials posted an explanation of the tattoo to the department Facebook page.

The post got more than 1,600 comments by Saturday. On Monday, Chief Scott Bieber decided to pull down the department’s social media accounts entirely because it had been taken over by “trolls and zealots trying to scream as loudly as they can for their cause,” the Union-Bulletin reported.

The comments about the tattoo have been split between those commending Small’s military service, character and career and those criticizing the tattoo as an appropriation of Nazi symbolism.

Weinstein said artists are willing to change the tattoo free of charge, and this shouldn’t be a difficult choice for either Small or the city.

“If HBO Max is pulling ‘Gone with the Wind’ because of its racial stereotypes, I think Walla Walla can have Officer Small change his tattoo,” Weinstein said.

Just covering up the tattoo is not enough for Weinstein or his client, a member of the Walla Walla Jewish community. They say the longer the tattoo exists the more it erodes trust in Small personally and in the department in general.

“Police officers are supposed to be inextricably intertwined into the very fabric of their communities, especially in a small town such as Walla Walla,” Weinstein wrote. “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.”

Chief Bieber said he hadn’t seen the foundation’s letter.

Marine scout sniper

Small, 31, is a former Marine scout sniper who served in Afghanistan in the early part of the last decade. At the time, the snipers adopted the double lightning bolt as their symbol. Small combined the symbol with a picture of brass knuckles and the name of Claudio Patino IV, according to an article in Stars and Stripes.

Patino was shot as he crested a hill in front of his fellow Marines, putting himself in harm’s way. Small pulled his friend off of the rise and was given a bronze star for his actions.

“The tattoo on his left forearm embodies a combination of sorrow, guilt and perspective, earned in combat, that he can’t escape,” the 2012 article said. “He doesn’t want to escape.”

Small told the Union-Bulletin that the understands the concerns about the tattoo, and without the backstory it would be impossible to understand it.

Response so far

On Friday, Chief Bieber issued a statement saying that Small wears and has always worn a long-sleeve shirt to cover up the tattoo. It’s not clear whether the department would take any further steps about the tattoo.

For Congregation Beth Israel, a Walla Walla synagogue, the meaning for Small does not wipe away the pain and suffering it might hold for others.

Synagogue leaders sent out a message to members and the Union-Bulletin about the tattoo, saying the department should issue an apology and acknowledge their concerns.

“We believe the WWPD works hard to uphold their values of service, pride and integrity,” according to the synagogue’s statement. “The WWPD’s response has been reactionary and defensive, eroding the trust of our community.”

For his part, Beiber announced plans to form an advisory committee to help him work better with diverse groups, including the area’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups and Latino, black and Jewish communities, the Union-Bulletin reported.

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