Philadelphia became the center of national headlines in July 2016 as it played host to the Democratic National Convention.
However, one story that later came out of the event was about a police officer with arm tattoos that seemingly resembled Nazi imagery.
Shortly after President Trump’s ascension to the White House, stories abounded of hateful graffiti appearing in the city, from swastikas on storefronts and public parks to racist comments spray-painted on cars.
More than a year later, Philadelphians are still rattled by these incidents, and local lawmakers have started to take broad action.
On Oct. 12, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown proposed an ordinance “authorizing the Commissioner of Public Property to regulate and prohibit offensive materials from City-owned or City-occupied facilities.”
The photo of Officer Ian Lichterman went viral on social media in late August 2016, depicting a German Imperial eagle on his left forearm resembling the emblem adopted during Hitler’s rise to power, though there is no swastika under the wreath of his tattoo as there was in the original symbol. Above the eagle, the word “Fatherland” is tattooed in large Gothic letters.
The public responded in outrage and began looking into Lichterman’s past, digging up evidence that he shares a name and email address with an Ian Lichterman who was outed in 2010 as a member of the white supremacist online network, Blood and Honour.
Mayor Jim Kenney released a strongly worded statement, as the Jewish Exponent reported in September 2016: “The imagery on display in the tweet is disturbing,” he said. “I find it incredibly offensive, and I know many others do as well. This image is particularly offensive to our WWII veterans who fought valiantly to free Europe from Nazi Germany, as well as all victims of Nazi atrocities.”
After an Internal Affairs investigation, Lichterman was cleared of wrongdoing and permitted to keep his job.
Others in the police force came to his defense, including Fraternal Order of Police Chief John McNesby, who said the tattoo was “not a big deal.”
Lichterman has denied to many outlets any association with Nazi imagery and said it was an homage to his ancestry.
“My tattoos are of my German-American heritage,” Lichterman wrote in an email to BuzzFeed in September 2017. “You and your colleagues in the news media have done nothing but attempted to ruin my career, attacked my character, attacked my family, questioned my service to the citizens of Philadelphia, and that of my service to the United States of America as a United States Marine.”
The symbol itself was of particular importance, as Anti-Defamation League Regional Director Nancy Baron-Baer told the Exponent last year: “The Nazi eagle, which was developed in the 1920s, contained an eagle holding a swastika,” she said. “Sometimes extremists leave the circle blank where the swastika would appear, oftimes because there are many countries that prohibit a swastika being in print. Here, there was no swastika. Not every image of an eagle is a Nazi eagle, and so we can’t in and of itself say that that particular symbol makes the individual an anti-Semite.”
In February, the Philadelphia Police Department introduced its first-ever tattoo policy, forbidding on-duty officers from having “offensive, extremist, indecent, racist or sexist” tattoos, according to philly.com.
The policy forbids head, face, neck and scalp tattoos and extreme body modifications, like tongue-splitting, the article noted. Officers who already have tattoos on the aforementioned areas must cover them with makeup or clothing.
The proposed ordinance does not address tattoos but it would go a step further as far as prohibiting discriminatory images in public.
“We do not believe an ordinance specifically mentioning employees’ bodies — i.e., tattoos — is constitutionally sound,” said Jane Roh, communications director of City Council of Philadelphia. “However, we do believe the city will be empowered to enforce regulations requiring offensive tattoos to be obscured when on public employees on public property.”
It would allow the city to prohibit any “symbols, materials, objects, or speech” deemed discriminatory or hateful against a person or group “on the basis of skin color, national origin, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”
“No employee, and certainly no citizen, should be made to feel offended or fearful because of what a public employee says, wears, or does,” Clarke said in a statement. “We have the right as an employer to set guidelines for conduct, and we have an obligation to earn the trust of the people we serve — particularly those belonging to groups targeted for discrimination.”
The move comes weeks after a Confederate flag was discovered on the license plate of a narcotics officer’s personal vehicle in early September, as reported by Metro.
The discovery served as an impetus for the creation of the bill, Roh said, noting the incident was upsetting to Clarke and his colleagues.
“Government is rightfully restricted from regulating individuals’ speech and expression, including that of public employees in their private lives — aka, when they are not on duty, at home, etc.,” she said. “But, the legal staff in our office concluded that the City does have a right — and arguably, a responsibility — to uphold standards for decent expression and speech in our work spaces.”