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Mailbag response: What you had to say about visible tattoos on POs


August 02, 2005
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Mailbag response: What you had to say about visible tattoos on POs

Last week, it was reported that the Houston (TX) PD has implemented a "no visible tattoos" rule requiring that any officer who has one to cover it - regardless of time of year or location on the body - or have it removed by laser or other treatment. The chief feels that this will help his officers reflect a more professional image. Some of the rank and file, however, have concerns about cost of removal treatment or physical comfort if they have to cover up year round.

We asked for your opinion and you responded, as usual, in stellar style. Here's a random sampling of what some P-1 members across the country had to say.

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Det. Glenn Youngblood with the Jacksonville (FL) SO:

 The Jacksonville Sheriff's office tried this a while back and inadvertently punished a lot of good police officers by requiring long sleeved shirts (which could only be worn with ties at the time) or covering up tattoos with bandages, making mummies out of some. This created quite a dilemma for officers working in 100 degree summer heat, who wore tattoos prior to the new regulations. Working in the Florida sun will make anyone miserable and grumpy; now try on long sleeves while directing traffic or wrestling a suspect. A friend of mine is still suffering from multiple laser treatments, which look very similar to grease burns. I watched good officers become disgruntled over this supposed public relations issue.

In my opinion, the following are real world questions that need to be answered and keep in mind that I have a police unit tattoo that cannot be seen through my shirt sleeve:
 
1.) If a department hires an officer with existing tattoos, are they willing to pay for their officers to have tattoos removed?

2.) Is the department going to allow officers to have tattoos removed on duty?

3.) Is the department willing to pay for the heat stroke/exhaustion issues they are promoting by requiring long shirts and long pants in instances where officers will obviously suffer?

4.) Is the perceived "public relations" issue as important to the community as the officer's safety and ability to do his/her job effectively, even in the heat?

5.) Is the officer's attitude and job performance going to be accentuated or depreciated?

6.) Can elective surgery be forced upon an officer without violating his/her rights?

7.) If something "goes wrong" and the laser surgery promotes a skin cancer issue, who should attorneys file a claim against?

8.) Will a disabled officer be able to keep his/her job, downgraded in status, or forced to retire?

9.) If the tattoo is not obscene or profane, is it really worth the potential risk and expense to the community, the department and lets not forget the officer?

10.) Are the department "chiefs" going to follow their own rules and lead by example?

11.) Wouldn’t a new policy directing or limiting new tattoos and their visible body locations be a better solution for all current and newly hired officers without "punishing" those with existing tattoos?

I am a firm believer in uniformity for officers, but if the department gets under the officer's skin, I feel an infection of attitude is most likely to spread throughout the ranks,

(Regardless of who may or may not be tattooed).

An outbreak of "blue flu" may also be in that department's immediate future.

Jacksonville reconciled its policy to restrict any "offensive tattoos," so the hotshots with flames on their arms or cartoon characters on their ankles are still safe here, however, those officers with naked women/etc. tattoos (obviously left over from their military days) are still required to cover up. The key seems to be implementing a fair policy from the time "before" an officer is hired, so there's no knee-jerk reaction and subsequent fallout over policy applied retroactively.

A wise department would be seeking ways to motivate officers, who already face a brutal reality and resentment on a daily basis. In so doing the community benefits from better policing and the department will reap the praise.

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Lt. Mike Edgmon with the Conway (AR) PD:

Personally I believe tattoos do give the officer an unprofessional look.

If the officer has tattoos that he wants to keep then they should be covered up.

I believe that the image of the department as a whole would improve if tattoos were not visible. Not from a performance aspect but just from the outlook of a first impression.

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Sgt. Steven A. Osarczuk with the New Paltz (NY) PD:

I have to pause a moment to take in and fully digest the absolute absurdity of such a department rule. "Tattooed Officers must cover their ink with their uniform or have the ink removed via laser."

I’ve been on the job for 16 years and with my department for 18 years. I still remember the day I was sworn in. I held up my right hand and took "The Oath" to protect and serve my community and to enforce the laws of New York and the Constitution of United States. They handed me my shield, issued me my pistol and patted me on the back. Unbeknownst to me, with those congratulatory pats, they were taping a sign to my back the read, "Second Class Citizen: This person is not entitled to the inalienable rights guaranteed by our Constitution - the same rights he or she will someday put his or her life on the line to protect." I see now this problem exists throughout the country.

I do not know of any police officer asking for more rights than the average citizen, but I know many that would simply like to have the same rights.

I do not know the complete story regarding the tattooed officers in the Houston PD. Maybe some officers have what is deemed to be inappropriate ink ... I don’t know, and I certainly couldn’t judge what is inappropriate. I would also venture to say that neither could Chief Hurtt. I mean no disrespect to the chief or to his service, but I will say two things:

1) If I were chief I would want my officers to be a "cross-section" of the society and community they serve, I would want them to come from all social, cultural and economic climates and have a vast array of experiences that I, as an administrator, could draw upon. I would look into the eyes of my officers and know them for who they are as men and women first and officers second and I would know that the professional image of my department would be built and carried upon the backs of my officers - not by the pictures on their skin but by the service, sacrifice and dedication they offer everyday on the street.

2) Chief, worry more about what your officers are doing than what they may look like. Ensure they have the necessary training, equipment and support to effectively and safely perform their duties. When these two things are accomplished and someone then complains about the ink one of your officers has and not the officer’s performance itself simply tell them what my father (20 plus years of service, retired SCPD) used to tell me when I was child: Never judge a book by its cover.

Have faith that your officers will honor you through their service, have tolerance toward their choices and revel in their diversity, personal expression and differing life styles... After all isn’t this how you want your officers to act toward the members of your own community, if so then lead by example.
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Officer J. Dodd with the Bridgewater (VA) PD:

If the chief of their department has nothing better to worry about than officers' tattoos, well, he must not be looking very hard. What a superficial and unimportant thing on which to waste department's time and energy. I work for a small agency, but nearly half of our officers have tattoos. In this day and age, tattoos are not the tabboo they once were. If the subject matter is offensive, such as curse words or nudity, the brass may have a complaint. However, you have an A+ officer with a tattoo of a cross and his childrens' names on his forearm and you're going to give him a hard time?
 
I certainly don't agree with a broad stroke rule such as no visible tattoos. That type of general order makes me suspect the chief doesn't have much concern or empathy for his rank and file. I'd be looking for another job.
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Officer Sam Smith with the Evansville (IN) PD:

As a 10-year veteran of a Midwest police department of nearly 300 officers and having two large tattoos, I believe that I'm in a good position to voice my opinion. I feel that visible tattoos for uniformed officers are unprofessional. I also believe that goatees, earrings on men and hairstyles that draw undue attention to the uniformed officer are also unprofessional.

I have a large tattoo that covers my entire left shoulder, extends to part of my chest, back, and trapezoids. It also covers two-thirds of my biceps and triceps. I got the tattoo after I was on the police department. I was concerned that the tattoo would not extend beyond my short sleeved uniform shirt. Before I went into to be inked, I drew a line on my bicep where my uniform shirt rode up when I extended my arm so I could be sure that the tattoo was not visible when I wore my uniform.

I also have a tattoo on my back, between my trapezoids, which is not visible in uniform. I also was considerate that my tattoos were not visible in civilian clothing when I went to social events, school events and church functions with my wife and children. However, I don't mind my tattoos showing when I'm working out in the gym or competing in martial arts.

I'm aware of tenured uniformed officers who have been tattooed on their necks. There is still a stigma of tattoos that officers need to be aware when dealing with the public. In fact, I believe the word stigma comes from the ancient practice of tattooing criminals so they would be marked.

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Anonymous Georgia officer:

Do tattoos make officers look unprofessional?  Personally, I don't like tattoos.  Depending on the number and location of the tattoos, they can be unprofessional looking.  I don't think that one tattoo visible on the arm or leg is unprofessional.  If the arms or legs are covered in tattoos, then that, to me, would be unprofessional.

Should officers who have arm or leg tats be required to wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants at all times?  Yes and No.  While tattoos covering an appendage are unprofessional looking in my opinion, the problems is the retroactive rule.  If an agency hires an officer with tattoos or allows officer to get a tattoo while employed with the agency it is unfair to just get up one day and decide that they all now have to wear long pants and long sleeves.  It is one thing to make a rule that advises any prospective employees that they will be required to cover or remove tattoos to be employed with that agency.  It is quite another thing to now make "criminal" something that you allowed in the first place.  Tattoos are very different from actions.  Actions can be easily changed or halted.  One can't just stop having tattoos from one minute to the next.  Laser removal is very expensive and one shouldn't have to spend that kind of money out of pocket to remove something today, that yesterday, was permitted. 

Will a no-tat rule improve agency image?  Not likely, even if done right.  If made retroactive, quite possibly the opposite!  The agency that I work for made a similar rule.  Their rule was those with 3 or more visible tattoos had to wear long sleeves.  At our agency, anytime long sleeves were worn, a tie had to be worn with it.  It gets up to 105 degrees with a 115 degree heat index in the summer. The effect that it has had at our agency is to bring morale down even among those with no tattoos.  The rule has put very good (tattooed) cops on the verge of leaving our agency.  How does that help our agency and the public we serve?  How does it help any agency to run off someone who is a natural-born cop so they can replace him/her with one who is all polished and spit-shined but doesn't have enough sense to pour water out of a boot with the instructions taped to the bottom of the boot. It doesn't!

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Officer Glen McCull with the Commerce (TX) PD:

I hope they have their lawyers ready. I do not believe a policy can be enacted to include officers who are already on the force unless the department is ready to pay for the removal. I do not think tattoos that are not profane or offensive are unprofessional. It has become easy enough for the criminals to tell cops by their appearance while off duty as it is due to grooming standards. I think tattoos help deter that. Also why should someone who helps protect citizens and their rights be deprived the right to express themselves with tattoos?

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Officer Ralph Sturdevant with the Park Hills (MO) PD:

As a member of the law enforcement community for over 25 years I have saw department regulations go from zero tattoos to allowing tattoos, as long as they are not visible while the officer is in uniform. Being a police officer brings with it the necessity to act and look professional.

Tattoos have the distinct ability to take away from our professional appearance. We have enough problems with the general public accepting us as professionals – we sure don’t need to compound that problem by giving them ammunition (our tattoos) to perceive us as "whatevers" in uniform.

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Related Story:

Tell us your thoughts on cop tattoos




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