Tenn. officers keep body art under wraps

Editor's Note — P1 members had plenty to say When the Houston (TX) PD banned tattoos in 2005. Read their comments here — and post your own.  

By Lauren Gregory
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. Chattanooga Police Officer Todd Coleman never thought that anyone would care about a tattoo on his arm until recently.

"It intimidates some people, I guess," he said.

Officer Coleman's body art can't be seen under his short-sleeved uniform. But some of his fellow officers with larger tattoos will have to make some accommodations under a departmental policy change that bans all visible body art, he said.

Police Chief Freeman Cooper said maintaining a certain image among his officers helps prevent the erosion of public trust in the department.

"It's important for us, in the job that we do, to easily distinguish ourselves from those people we're having problems with in the community," the chief said. "We can't have our officers looking just like some of the people they may be arresting."

But Chattanooga Police Sgt. C.W. Joel, president of the Southeast Tennessee Chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, said he and many other officers resent that perspective.

"We believe that a tattoo is not a stigma and does not differentiate between 'good' and 'bad' people," said Sgt. Joel, who said he does not have a tattoo.

"I have seen more one-on-one, interpersonal contact between certain people and officers with tattoos than with officers that don't have tattoos," he said. "I watch kids that would never talk to a cop otherwise say, 'Wow, let me see your tats.' "

Chattanooga resident Jane Mauldin said not everyone is OK with seeing tattoos on officers.

"Even though a lot of people nowadays wear tattoos, I think there's sort of an association with someone that's maybe nonconformist in society," Ms. Mauldin said. "Maybe it's a double standard, but they should know going into it that we expect them to be models in the community."

2-year-old policy

The Chattanooga Police Department first began restricting body art several years ago as tattoos became more prevalent, according to Lon Eilders, a retired officer who manages departmental policy as a civilian.

In 2005, officials drafted a policy to restrict visible tattoos, declaring that exposed "body art, tattooing or braids are inconsistent with the professional image this organization has attempted to foster within our community."

Mr. Eilders said police departments nationwide began working on the issue then, along with the U.S. military.

Under Chattanooga's policy, anyone with excessive body art defined as covering more than one-third of an exposed body part or any image that could be considered "vulgar, indecent or racially biased" was required to cover it with long pants or a long-sleeved shirt.

Those who had obtained their tattoos before July 2003 were exempt from the policy, and those who still wished to get a tattoo that might be "questionable" could do so if they received approval from a special subcommittee. Those whose proposed designs were denied could appeal the subcommittee's decision to the police chief.

Mr. Eilders said that policy ultimately proved to be too permissive, prompting the department to implement a revised version this August that eliminated all exceptions to the original mandate.

The change was prompted by "a series of incidents" and complaints from the public, he said.

Chattanooga's department like many across the country has dealt with "a minority of officers that want to test the limits," Mr. Eilders said.

"Essentially, people have pushed the envelope," he said. "You have to prescribe exactly or people are going to do what they want to do."

The Metro Nashville Police Department's tattoo policy dictates that officers maintain "an appropriate professional" image that falls within "generally accepted business practices."

The Chattanooga Fire Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department are revising their policies to include restrictions similar to the police department's.

"They want us to look professional -- not like we just walked out of a biker bar," said sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Max Templeton, who said the issue emerged at his department within the past few years.

A positive sign?

John Cothran, owner of American Ink on Brainerd Road, said he believes tattoos on officers would actually help to bolster their authority in many cases.

"On certain individuals that wouldn't otherwise respond to authority, it's another element that says, 'Hey, I mean business,' " Mr. Cothran said.

Sgt. Joel said his department should "represent all parts of the public it serves." Although the tattoo policy stipulates that it is not designed to eliminate candidates for employment or limit employees' freedom of expression, regulating body art is a form of discrimination, he said.

Officers in other states have battled tattoo policies in court using a First Amendment-based argument. But historically, decisions have given police officials discretion, according to a story published in the February 2007 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

"First Amendment rights of public employees are significantly more limited than those of the general public," a 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals 2006 opinion stated. "A police department has reasonable interest in not offending, or appearing unprofessional before, the public it serves."

Chattanooga attorney E. Lupton Winningham said that in such cases, the court would side with whichever party has a more compelling interest. In the case of the police department and tattoos, he said, the department's duty to serve the public likely would trump an officer's desire to govern his or her own appearance while doing so.

"If the interest of the police is compelling, and the infringement on that right is moderate, then they can restrict it," Mr. Winningham said.

Chief Cooper said he believes the debate may stem from generational differences.

"I think younger people are more likely now to get tattoos before thinking about where they are headed in their careers," he said.

Copyright 2007 Chattanooga Times Free Press

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