Conn. city can ban display of police tattoos, court says
By LARRY NEUMEISTER
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK- A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Hartford, Conn., can ban police officers from displaying offensive tattoos, disappointing five officers who claimed the rule violated their First Amendment rights.
"A police department has a reasonable interest in not offending or appearing unprofessional before the public it serves," said the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is located in New York.
The appeals court said a lower court judge was right last March to dismiss the lawsuit, which was brought against the city and its former police chief.
The city's order affects only tattoos displayed by on-duty police officers, the court said. It also argued that the First Amendment rights of public employees are more limited than those of the general public.
A lawyer for the five policemen, Jon L. Schoenhorn, said the courts were being unfair.
"Public employees certainly do not lose all their rights just because they receive a paycheck from a public entity," he said.
Schoenhorn said his clients' so-called spider tattoo, which looks like a spider web, was banned by the Hartford Police Department after a disgruntled detective who was angry at a union for police employees claimed the tattoo had racial overtones.
The lawyer said his own research indicated the tattoo began during the Vietnam War, and each line of the web pertained to how many tours of duty were performed overseas. He conceded that a white supremacy group had adopted the spider tattoo.
"Just because some racist organization decided to adopt it, it did not suddenly transform these officers into racists," Schoenhorn said.
The five officers are upset in part because the order forces them to wear armbands over their elbow tattoos when they wear short-sleeve shirts, their lawyer said.
"It's singling them out for ridicule," he said. "Some are military vets."
A telephone message left with Hartford's law office was not immediately returned Wednesday.