Tattoos: Official blots on reputations?

By Matt Reed

MELBOURNE, Fla. — Tattoos are becoming increasingly taboo for police and military personnel. A growing list of police agencies across the USA have adopted or drafted stricter policies on how much "body art" officers can show.

Last March, the U.S. Marine Corps began prohibiting sleeve tattoos that would be visible when Marines wear exercise uniforms.

"What we're seeing is a trend, with younger people coming out of the military and they're getting more tattoos," said Capt. Mark Strobridge of the Orange County Sheriff's Office, which expects to finalize a new tattoo policy after August. "We find highly qualified individuals, but their appearance is not in keeping with grooming standards for law enforcement," Strobridge says.

The policies follow a 2006 U.S. appeals court ruling that found Hartford, Conn., police officers' tattoos do not enjoy First Amendment protection and can be subject to department uniform rules. They also coincide with moves by the military to limit "excessive" tattoos.

Some agencies consider any visible tattoo excessive. Others address marks covering more than one-fourth or one-third of an officer's arm or leg.

Tattooed officers in warm-weather regions have complained about wearing long sleeves and pants in places such as central Florida.

"We fought long and hard to get a summer uniform here in the sweltering heat, and they want people to cover up to their wrists and ankles in hot polyester while directing traffic and wearing a 25-pound gun belt?" said Cpl. John Park, president of the Central Florida Police Benevolent Association.

About 36% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo, according to a survey published last year in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Writing a fair policy has been difficult, Strobridge said, because while tattoos have important personal meanings to officers, the citizens they serve may be intimidated or offended by them. Park said a qualified recruit, an Iraq war veteran, was alarmed the sheriff's office put him "on hold" over a forearm tattoo showing a grim reaper, an American flag and the date of his tour.

"It's a matter of professionalism," said Toni Brandenburger of suburban Orange County, east of Orlando. "I wouldn't be intimidated. But I might think twice about asking directions from someone with a big grim reaper on their arm."

Codes vary across the USA:

•Southern California. Los Angeles police officers must cover tattoos with clothing or skin-colored patches. In San Diego, officers must hide any markings that cover 30% or more of exposed body parts.

•Houston. Police must wear winter clothes year-round to cover tattoos.

•Maryland. Baltimore and Baltimore County forbid any visible tattoos on officers.

•Kentucky. The Kentucky State Police turns away applicants with visible tattoos.

In the military, Marines who already have tattoos must document them to commanders. Army recruits now may have tattoos on their hands and back of the neck as long as the markings aren't racist, sexist or otherwise offensive.

The Air Force prohibits tattoos that cover more than 25% of exposed body parts and any above the collarbone.

Reed reports for Florida Today in Melbourne, Fla.

Copyright 2007 USA Today

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