Whitman College ends relationship with Walla Walla PD over tattoo

WALLA WALLA — Whitman College has cut ties with the Walla Walla Police Department effective immediately, college President Kathleen Murray announced in a letter to faculty Sunday.

The move — a response to the double lightning bolt “SS” tattoo on the arm of Officer Nat Small and the police chief’s support of Small when addressing supporters last week — means the college will no longer hire off-duty police officers to provide security for its events.

The college will also no longer allow law enforcement to conduct training on its campus or allow police officers to use its fitness center, according to the letter.

“I realize that this does very little to address concerns from the Whitman community about being safe and feeling welcome and included in Walla Walla,” Murray wrote. “I share your pain and concern.”

Whitman College officials had not responded to the U-B’s request for more information this morning.

It was unclear in the letter whether Murray was barring all law enforcement agencies from training on Whitman’s campus. Representatives from the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office and the College Place Police Department said this morning they were unsure whether they could continue training there.

“If so, that would be a shame,” College Place Officer Dylan Schmick wrote in an email. “We have utilized some of their property for large scale trainings involving all local agencies in the past.”

He added that many agencies have used the college for training to improve teamwork and to use each other’s resources and it was “beneficial.” The restriction, if true, would have “a big impact on all Walla Walla Valley agencies,” he said.

It was also unclear in the letter which law enforcement officers were now barred from using the college gym, but neither College Place police officers nor Walla Walla County Sheriff’s deputies have ever used the college’s fitness center, representatives said.

Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber said this morning he thought Murray’s actions were unfortunate.

“During my tenure as chief of the Walla Walla Police Department, WWPD has always had a positive working relationship with Whitman College,” Bieber wrote in a statement.

“I regret that the school has taken these actions, but should Whitman College, its students or staff need the services of the police department, we will continue to be available and responsive.”

The chief referenced public meetings, still being planned by city leaders, as a place to continue the discussion about the tattoo and other concerns.

“We acknowledge there are a variety of viewpoints regarding this situation, and we hope the upcoming town hall meetings will provide a venue where community concerns and WWPD policies can be reconciled,” he wrote.

Officer Small has had the tattoo since 2010, when he was a Scout Sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps. The double lightning bolt “SS” tattoo was informally adopted by some members of the elite group. But it has also been highly criticized as the same Schutzstaffel symbol used by the Nazi Party and now neo-Nazis.

In 2012, use of the symbol was denounced by the Marine Corps.

The tattoo, which includes brass knuckles and the name of a fallen comrade, came to light earlier this month when a photo that showed Small’s arm was pointed out on local Facebook pages.

The police department made its own post explaining the symbol’s connection to the scout snipers and stating that Small, a decorated veteran, has the tattoo as a tribute to his friend, Claudio Patino, who died in his arms while fighting in Afghanistan in 2010.

Bombarded with messages about the tattoo, police representatives down the department’s social media sites in early June.

Murray said the WWPD’s explanation was not enough.

“Despite acknowledging the history of this symbol, Small has not apologized or agreed to remove or change the tattoo,” Murray wrote in Sunday’s letter.

“When confronted on social media, the police elected to defend Officer Small’s character and his right to have the tattoo … It is difficult to express how angry and sad this makes me personally, for Whitman, and for the Walla Walla community.”

Murray urged the department to change course in its response to the situation. “The remedy here is unambiguous,” Murray wrote.

“Officer Small must be compelled to change or remove this tattoo. Chief Bieber must acknowledge and apologize for his problematic actions and commit to running a police force that doesn’t have a place for hateful and violent symbols, rhetoric or action.

“Without these steps, the department no longer has the credibility needed to keep every member of the the Walla Walla community safe, which should be the minimum standard we expect of our police.”

Murray said she reached out to Bieber before making the decision.

“He was unwilling to change his position,” Murray wrote.