Cops and Tattoos: Can an Effective Police Officer Have Ink?

EKU Online > Cops and Tattoos: Can an Effective Police Officer Have Ink?

By: Gregg Jones

“We’re losing a lot of good applicants.”

That was Vermont State Police Captain David Notte’s comment on strict appearance and acceptance policies associated with police tattoo bans for officers and applicants.

Police agency tattoo policies vary widely across the nation, and include everything from agencies do not allow visible tattoos on the neck and face to agencies that prohibit any visible tattoos at all.

If you’re not used to seeing police officers with full sleeve tattoos, it can be an eye-opener the first time, even for a sworn officer working in a strict-tattoo-policy agency like myself. About two years ago while traveling in the Philadelphia area, I noticed two separate officers wearing short sleeve uniforms each with full sleeve tattoos on both arms. It was something I hadn’t witnessed before, and I began to wonder if these officers were received by citizens differently than other officers without visible tattoos. They may be the best at what they do, but what is the perception of the public and where is the breaking point between the professionalism that an agency strives for and a growing number of police officer applicants that are sporting ink?

Tattoos have become more common over the past couple of decades. A Harris poll in 2012 found that 1 out of every 5 adults — 21 percent — had at least one tattoo. An earlier Pew Research Center study found that the number was closer to 40 percent among those ages 18 to 29.

Yet, some agency leaders believe that tattoo policies are essential because visible tattoos are a barrier to building trust in some parts of an agency’s jurisdiction.

Agencies are still grappling with tattoo policies. Denver, New Orleans, Honolulu, Oklahoma City and many other police departments have had recent significant media attention to new or revised tattoo policies, mostly affecting current officers.

How will these policies affect hiring? Will strict tattoo policies and an applicant pool with visible tattoos result in future relaxed agency tattoo policies?  Will tattoo interpretation experts be required to decipher if a permitted tattoo is “offensive” or “gang related”? These and many other questions may be answered in the not so distant future. What do you think?

This guest blog post was written by Gregg Jones. He is an EKU graduate and a police commander.


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