Police Officers and Tattoos

by Ted Belling


Since the founding of formal police departments in this country, there has been a struggle between the institutional values of police departments and the current values of the communities they serve. Nothing is more illustrative of this than the current controversy police departments are having over the issue of police officers displaying tattoos. There are several issues that arise from this conflict: How will the different generations of the community react? How will the different generations of officers working in the department react? How will the departments deal with officers and tattoos through policy? How will the officers with tattoos react to policy restrictions? How are tattoos affecting recruitment of new officers?


  How will the different generations of the community react?  It is easy for the younger generations, especially the Generation X and Y segments of the community. To them, tattoos are a personal and positive expression of who they are. They proudly display their tattoos for others to see. It is estimated that one in four people in these groups have or intend to get tattoos. They do not think of tattoos as a social stigma. They don’t care if officers have tattoos. To them an officer with tattoos shares a kinship with them, making the officer somewhat more desirable to deal with. Older generations, however, generally have a negative view of tattoos. Thugs, criminals, gangsters, the worst characters in society have tattoos. The only exceptions are military personnel who get patriotic tattoos. To these generations, a person with tattoos is despised, not trusted. The religious component of tattooing one’s body also cannot be overlooked. Leviticus 19/27 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.” To a Christian, tattooing is sinful behavior. Any person that has tattoos is displaying behavior that is the antithesis of what a police officer should be. A police officer with tattoos is perceived to be identifying with the worst of society and the older generations will be far less likely to want to cooperate with the officer, or even trust to let him/her into their home. There is no downside to officers without tattoos. Officers with visible tattoos, however, will have a negative view by a large segment of the population. Therefore, except for the officer’s own vanity, there is no benefit, only negatives to an officer displaying tattoos. This may change and society may become fully accepting, but I don’t foresee it at least for the next few generations.


  How will the different generations of officers working in the department react? Officers are a microcosm of the society at large. Officers on the force can range from 21 yrs to 70 + yrs. Each generation of officers have the same types of views as those in the greater community. Up until a few years ago tattoos were not even an issue because the officers had a personal standard of not having tattoos in areas of their bodies where they could be seen in uniform. It was seen as disrespectful to the uniform to do otherwise. Now, there are many new officers that started getting tattoos that cover their whole arms. They have a different view of how this appears while in uniform.


  How will the departments deal with officers and tattoos through policy? This is the big issue that police departments struggle with. A police department cannot let an officer display any tattoo he/she wants. What if the officer wants to display a graphic depiction of a woman’s vagina, or swastikas, or mutilated bodies, or racist symbols, or any other offensive imagery or writing? Are police departments going to become tattoo censors? What is acceptable to an officer may not be to the Chief. This type of arbitrary decision making is rife with litigation potential. The best way to avoid this problem is to craft the policy preventing the officers from having any tattoos in areas of the body that cannot be covered by the uniform or a flesh colored sleeve on the arm. Officers will not be allowed to have tattoos on the hands, neck, or face. How will the officers with tattoos react to policy restrictions? Officers across the country are fighting back against department policies on tattoos through arbitration and litigation. Officers that often prevail got the tattoos before their departments implemented tattoo policies.


  How are tattoos affecting recruitment of new officers? As I mentioned earlier, about 25% of the new generation has tattoos. Most of these young people probably gave very little consideration to how the tattoos would affect their career choices when they got them. Many of them also got them as patriotic reminders of their service to this country in the recent wars we’ve had. Most of the decision makers controlling the hiring of new officers are of the older generations, however, and really do not want officers to show tattoos. If a department has a policy that says that the officer cannot have any tattoos not coverable by a short sleeved shirt, it would exclude many otherwise good candidates from consideration.  Departments struggling for qualified recruits with a similar policy would eventually have to modify the policy to tattoos being coverable by a long sleeved shirt or allow the display of tattoos. Relaxing tattoo policies may improve recruitment, but it could very well have the opposite effect. Many people feel that displaying tattoos is unprofessional. If they want to consider being police officers, they may shy away from agencies that allow the display of tattoos because of the lower standards.


  Tattoos in our society today still carry a stigma. Many feel that people with tattoos are untidy, untrustworthy, repugnant, and of low character. Whether it is fair or not is irrelevant if you chose to be a police officer. If many citizens in your community feel this way, a tatted up officer’s effectiveness in the community will be markedly diminished. This could also diminish the community’s respect for the department as a whole and reduce cooperation and support. The goal of any police department should be to find officers that can be the least objectionable possible to be able to provide service to the widest range potential of the community. Police Departments have struggled for decades to raise the professional standards of the officers. The lowering of standards to improve recruitment is taking police departments in the wrong direction. If you chose to get tattoos on your arms, face, neck, or hands, you need to accept the fact that you have seriously restricted yourself in the job market. That was your choice. Don’t be bitter or angry at the police recruiter when he holds that uniform shirt up to you to see if your tattoos show, then thanks you and sends you home without a chance.

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