Vallejo Police Lt. Michael Nichelini with his father, former Police Chief Robert Nichelini. (Photo/Facebook)
Vallejo Police Lt. Michael Nichelini with his father, former Police Chief Robert Nichelini. (Photo/Facebook)

Vallejo police investigate swastika-like symbol on internal communication

An embattled Vallejo Police Department is facing controversy surrounding a reported swastika on an internal communication.

An Oct. 5 press release from spokeswoman Brittany K. Jackson said Police Chief Shawny Williams had requested an external investigation into the matter “after receiving numerous complaints from VPD employees.”

“It was brought to my attention that a VPD employee’s communications contained the image of a swastika,” Williams said in the release. “Following a preliminary review of the matter, I ordered an outside investigation into the incident, which is currently in progress.

“Racism will not be tolerated in our department,” the statement continued. “A swastika is a universal symbol of hate and racism and is not accepted here. Anyone who would imply or suggest otherwise is tone deaf and dishonors the memories and lives of millions of Jewish people and others who died during the Holocaust.”

No one from the police department returned calls or emails for comment.

While the symbol clearly was offensive to some, others have suggested that its meaning is being misinterpreted and that it is really a much older Eastern image conferring good luck, with the symbol facing in the opposite direction of a Nazi swastika.

The image in question is of a 113-year-old Vallejo police badge with a small, left-facing swastika carved into the top. Former Vallejo Police Chief Robert Nichelini told the Vallejo Times-Herald that his son, Lt. Michael Nichelini, had sent the image to him and that it was merely a piece of memorabilia reflecting their shared interest in the history of the department.

“The ‘swastika’ is left-facing and represents the Native American symbol for auspiciousness and good luck,” Robert Nichelini wrote to the newspaper. “It was likely a popular symbol in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It has nothing to do with Nazism.”

When the Vallejo Police Department says they are taking these types of crimes seriously, there’s scant evidence to show for it.

The left-facing symbol, known as a sauwastika, is an ancient Buddhist one that predates the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s (although both left- and right-facing swastikas are used in Hindu and Buddhist iconography).

Vallejo City Council member and mayoral candidate Robert McConnell said he’s aware of the “controversy over what that symbol actually is,” but said if it turns out to be the Nazi version, he has a big problem with it being associated with the police department in any way.

“If it’s a swastika, it’s hate speech, it’s alarming, but I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “I’m taken aback that no one would have caught it before it got out there. It was on a [police] union communication. The former chief weighed in online on it, trying to help out his son. It’s about the history of the department, he said.”

The younger Nichelini, president of the Vallejo police union, is on administrative leave for an unrelated incident tied to a June officer-involved shooting.

Several Jewish community members declined to comment, saying they’re waiting for the results of the investigation. Vallejo resident Susan George, a Congregation B’nai Israel member and community organizer, said she became aware of the use of the symbol in India, where it is “ubiquitous” and “freaked me out” when she first encountered it, before its origins were explained.

She’s nevertheless concerned about the image found on the Vallejo Police Department communication.

“When I heard about a swastika on the communications of a VPD employee, it concerned me greatly. Then I thought of the swastika and racist graffiti found at Vallejo’s Hanns Park earlier this year, and the large ‘Hitler’ that was scrawled on a billboard on Sonoma Boulevard last year, visible to thousands of drivers every day,” she said.

Graffiti outside the public bathroom in Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, June 2020.
Graffiti outside the public bathroom in Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, June 2020.

“The VPD claimed it was investigating the Hanns Park graffiti as a hate crime,” George said. “But after the VPD statement, concerned Vallejo residents visited the site and noticed a can of spray paint and lid — evidence that the VPD left behind. Concerning the Hitler billboard, numerous complaints had been reported and no action taken for months, so my partner Matthew Finkelstein and I painted over it.

“So when the VPD says they are taking these types of crimes seriously, there’s scant evidence to show for it. To be sure, there is a crisis of confidence in the VPD, and for good reason,” George said.

McConnell said he, too, is reserving judgment until the investigation is complete. “Council has nothing to do with internal department matters,” he said. “But I’ve made a number of suggestions. I understand that the psych exam is done at the end of the [interview/hiring] process, and it should be at the beginning of the process. It seems like they’re putting the cart before the horse.”

Vallejo mayor Bob Sampayan spoke to J. about the incident on Tuesday.

“I’m appalled and angry that we’re having to deal with this,” he said. “Former Police Chief Nichelini and his son say that symbol stood for something else, but they know that when you see a swastika it means only one thing — it stands for hate.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."