Within hours of demonstrators taking to the streets Tuesday to protest that Daniel Prude's arresting officers would not face criminal charges, social media posts alleging that some officers at the demonstration were wearing neo-Nazi symbols on their uniforms began to circulate.
Over the next two days, they would gain traction, particularly in Rochester's social activist circles.
The posts, accompanied by photos, mainly focused on an insignia emblazoned on neck gaiters worn by some officers at the protest. The insignia depicted an armored gloved hand, known as a gauntlet, clutching lightning bolts. The number "8" appears prominently on the wrist of the glove.
"When we say RPD are Nazis, it's not a joke or exaggeration," read one steadily circulated Instagram post of an image of a young female protester posing with an officer wearing one of the neck gaiters in question.
The post, which has since been deleted, suggested that the photo was taken outside of the Rochester Police Department's Special Operations Section headquarters on Child Street, where demonstrators gathered that night. A subsequent slide in the post was a close-up photo of the officer in the neck gaiter.
"The two lightning bolts are the sign of Hitler's police, and 88 means Heil Hitler so I don't know what just one 8 means but I know it has NO place in our community and it DEFINITELY should not have a badge and a gun," the post went on.
— Max Schulte (@maxrocphoto) February 24, 2021
Protesters at the scene that night also seized on the insignia and immediately associated it with white power.
"Look what he's wearing on his face," shouted one protester, referring to an officer wearing the neck gaiter bearing the insignia. "That's a neo-Nazi sign!"
The protester went on to demand of Officer Moses Robinson, a well-known crime prevention officer who was recently promoted to a command post and was at the scene, to instruct his colleague to remove the neck gaiter.
"Tell him to take it off! Tell him to take it off!" the protester shouted at Robinson. "That's blatant racism. That's a neo-Nazi sign."
"No it isn't," Robinson said.
"Yes it is!" the protester and other demonstrators replied.
The double lightning bolt logo of the SS — the secret police of Nazi Germany formally known as the Schutzstaffel — and the number 88 are common white supremacist symbols, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The latter is a numerical code for "Heil Hitler," with the letter "H" being the eighth letter of the alphabet, according to the organization.
The Anti-Defamation League, an organization devoted to fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry, does not list anything resembling the insignia worn by some Rochester police officers in its database of hate symbols.
Rochester Police Department Investigator Frank Camp explained that the insignia represents the RPD's Tactical Unit, one of the department's Special Operations Section units.
"It absolutely has nothing to do with any Nazi symbolism whatsoever," Camp said.
The Tactical Unit was established in 1966, and has evolved into the department's elite crime prevention and violent offender apprehension division. The unit's officers assist patrol operations with covert surveillance and provide technical assistance for specialized crime details.
In the unit's early days, Camp explained, it was one of nine patrol sections in the city and was known within the department as Section 8. The "8" on the gauntlet on the insignia refers to the unit's origins.
"It has always been my understanding that the gauntlet grasping the lightning bolts symbolizes the ability to rapidly deploy this unit to address such special circumstances," Camp said, "with the speed of lightning."
Indeed, the image of lightning bolts in the grip of a fist or an armored glove, such as that worn by a knight, are depicted in insignias for electricians organizations and military units.
Symbolism worn on law enforcement uniforms does matter, however.
The New York City Police Department announced earlier this month that it had disciplined an officer seen wearing what the agency called "a politically-oriented patch" on his uniform.
The patch featured a stylized skull resembling the logo of the Marvel Comics character The Punisher, tweaked with former President Donald Trump's distinctive hair style. The patch read, "Trump — Make Enforcement Great Again 2020."
A more elaborate version of the RPD's Tactical Unit insignia has been fashioned into patches worn on the shoulders of uniforms of officers in the unit.
Such a patch was notably sported by Capt. Ray Dearcop, the commander of the RPD's Special Operations Section, in a now well-known photo taken of him last September during a police standoff with demonstrators outside City Hall. In the photo, Dearcop has emerged from a wall of officers to discuss the tense situation at hand with the Rev. Myra Brown of Spiritus Christi Church.
The version of the insignia sewn on the shoulders of Tactical Unit officers includes the year the unit was established and the initials of four officers who made significant contributions to the development of the unit, Camp said.
Those initials — "D.P.," "J.F.," C.S.," and "L.B." — stand for Daryl Pierson, John Ferlicca, Carl Sconfitto, and Louis Bertino. Pierson was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2014.
Camp said the insignia was designed by retired Sgt. John Ashford, who, news archives show, became the first Black officer to lead the Tactical Unit in 1970.
Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.
David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Includes reporting by CITY staff writer Gino Fanelli and WXXI photojournalist Max Schulte.
— Max Schulte (@maxrocphoto) February 24, 2021