Philadelphia police officials investigating an officer with a tattoo resembling a Nazi emblem knew he’d been accused of involvement in a white supremacist group and dismissed the allegation based on the officer’s denial, according to an internal affairs memo obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The department cleared officer Ian Lichterman of misconduct following a three-month investigation in late 2016, and he remains on the force. Lichterman has denied allegations of involvement in hate groups and told BuzzFeed News in September that his arm tattoo is a symbol of his German heritage, not a tribute to Nazis.
The 10-page internal affairs document, sent to the city’s police commissioner from the commanding officer of the internal affairs division in December, showed that investigators questioned Lichterman about allegations by a local antifa group that he was a member of a neo-Nazi organization. They also asked about his portrayal of a German soldier in at least three World War II reenactments and asked Lichterman to explain his forearm tattoo of an eagle, which looks a lot like the symbol adopted by the Nazi party during Adolf Hitler’s rise.
The investigation began after a photo of his tattoo went viral in early September 2016, leading at least one resident to file a complaint with the police department.
Lichterman was first linked to the skinhead group Blood & Honour in 2010, when an online activist group hacked into a series of white supremacist websites. Lichterman’s name, home address, and email appeared in Blood & Honour’s database, alongside the personal information of hundreds of people, including at least one other law enforcement agent: Bart Alsbrook, the Colbert, Oklahoma, interim police chief who resigned in August after local news outlets reported his alleged ties to hate groups. Alsbrook claimed that white supremacists had “hijacked” his name to make him look bad. Philadelphia police officials didn’t investigate Lichterman at that time, either because they were unaware of the database or because nobody filed a complaint about it.
When he was being questioned last year by police internal affairs following up on the tattoo complaint, Lichterman told investigators he had never heard of Blood & Honour until 2016. The memo did not give any explanation for why Lichterman’s name appeared in the Blood & Honour database, which BuzzFeed News has reviewed. There’s no indication investigators looked further into the matter after Lichterman denied involvement in the group.
Investigators also questioned Lichterman about his tattoo and accepted his explanation that he’d wanted a black eagle because it was the national bird of Germany.
The tattoo artist “did several different drawings for him,” the memo stated. “They then had a discussion regarding the drawings and [Lichterman] chose the drawing for the tattoo that would fit perfectly on his forearm, and the one that he personally liked the best out of all the drawings shown to him.”
The eagle he chose — wider than it is tall, with a flat head and sleek wings — looked nothing like any of the German national symbols before or after the Nazi era. Despite this, Lichterman told investigators that “his tattoo is not the same as the German eagle symbol of 1935-1945 in Nazi Germany,” according to the memo.
The memo says Lichterman pointed out minor differences, including that the head on his eagle is “more animated” than the Nazi one, which “is more box-like and geometric.” And instead of a swastika, there is an Iron Cross inside the wreath hanging from the bird’s talons.
Investigators noted that the Iron Cross “was re-introduced by Adolf Hitler in 1939,” but “the cross itself is not historically a strictly Nazi symbol.”
The investigators concluded, “There was no proof or evidence of any nature that [Lichterman] associates with, or belongs to any organization or group that perpetuates in or engages in acts or ideologies of hatred toward anyone.”
At the time, the department did not have a tattoo policy, but it instituted one weeks after the investigation was completed.
In an effort to determine if Lichterman had exhibited racial bias on the job, investigators conducted an audit into his records and found that 65% of the people he arrested from 2000 to 2015 were black. While the memo does not cite the demographics of the district he patrols, other than calling it “diverse,” census data shows that the northeastern Philadelphia district was 29% black in 2010 and even less in years past. Yet investigators concluded that the review “does not reveal any concerning patterns.”
A spokesperson for the department, Captain Sekou Kinebrew, said many of Lichterman’s arrests were likely based on suspect descriptions given by victims and not a reflection of any bias.
Philadelphia’s police department, like many others, has faced accusations of racial profiling. A recent analysis by the department found that 68% of those stopped by police in 2016 were black; black people make up 43% of the city’s population.
Four black officers in Philadelphia told BuzzFeed News in September that they were disappointed in how internal affairs handled the investigation into Lichterman.
After two interviews with Lichterman and a call to the Anti-Defamation League, which confirmed Lichterman was not on its list of known white supremacists, investigators cleared the officer.
Superiors did not order him to cover the tattoo until 10 months after the investigation, shortly after BuzzFeed News contacted the department for a story about the officer.
Albert Samaha is Inequality Editor at BuzzFeed News and author of two books, "Concepcion: An Immigrant Family's Fortunes" and "Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City." He is based in New York.
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