Many a SWAT tattoo out there!

As with everything, law enforcement policies continually evolve. Whether it’s generational, societal, legal, etc. – policies change as outlooks and circumstances change and sometimes the changes are mandated simply to maintain manpower. All too often we’re reminded of the reality: something is abnormal only until the majority of people are doing it and then it’s normal.  Decades ago, when the bulk of law enforcement officers were men over the age of 30 who had served in the military, tattoos weren’t necessarily frowned upon. They could inspire conversations between veterans from different branches of service or who served in the same war but in different parts of the world.

Then came a time when tattoos were frowned upon by “polite society.” They were viewed – probably thanks to television and movies – as things that only criminals and trashy people had. They were considered a sign of poor judgment or indicators of suspect behavior. In fact, as little as just a decade ago, there were young adults who couldn’t enlist in the military simply because they had a tattoo that would be visible when they were in uniform. I know a young lady who had a small zodiac (Aries) tattoo on the back of her neck, immediately beneath her hairline. It was hidden unless she had her hair up AND was wearing a shirt with no collar. The Marine Corps denied her enlistment because that tattoo would be visible in her physical training uniform (shorts and t-shirt). That was 2006!

Law enforcement has always had similar concerns as the military when it comes to tattoos: what is considered professional? I once had a Chief of Police who was critical of my Flag in Eagle tattoo (new to me in 1995 at the age of 31 and NOT visible in uniform) even though he had a seriously ugly old Navy anchor and rope tattoo on his forearm (badly faded, poorly done to begin with and visible in uniform). When he voiced his criticism of my tattoo, I pointed out his hypocrisy and his response was that he got his when he was “young and stupid.” The implication was that all tattoos are stupid (not to mention his opinion that I was stupid for having gotten a tattoo as an adult).

Just recently, I had opportunity to interview Chief William Harvey (author of The Illustrated Officer) about tattoos and the challenges of hiring young recruits in today’s world. In his experience, those recruits under 30 seem to have a higher incidence of being tattood. Further, a lot of them seem oblivious to the fact that their tattoos may be insulting to or found offensive by others. If you’re going to apply for a job that requires a professional appearance and a command presence, tattoos on your neck or face, or that indicate a belief in or commitment to a criminal belief structure or a terroristic group can be prohibitive to your success. Chief Harvey’s outlook toward tattoos (of which he has several) is that his officers need to remember to temper self-expression against societal perception. Tattoos are absolutely okay (and some are beautiful), but if they are perceived as offensive or are shocking in their appearance, then they will either need to be covered or can prohibit hiring into law enforcement.

So, here we are today. If we’re hiring officers at the minimum age of 21, they were born in 1997 or earlier. That generation of folks seems to have three different outlooks on tattoos (and piercings get throw into the same outlooks as well sometimes):

The first outlook is that tattoos are purely self-expression and no matter what they want to have tattood or where on their body, it’s nobody’s business but their own. Some of these folks have tattoos on their faces or necks (or both) as well as the backs of their hands, feet, etc. They understand why others might not appreciate the appearance but they also feel like any negativity is prejudicial. This group can at least understand why they might not get a job easily if their tattoos are either shocking in appearance or in places that people don’t appreciate.

The second outlook is that tattoos and piercings – body modifications of any kind – are just stupid and trivial; that you were born as designed (by God or nature) and shouldn’t mess with that.

The third outlook is that body modifications are mandatory to “fine tuning” your self-expression and demonstrating or displaying who you are, and if people don’t like it, well screw them.

Obviously there are the folks that fall into the shades of gray areas between the groups. I know plenty of younger folks (below 30ish) who have a tattoo… or two or three… and they are in “traditional” locations. Those folks appreciate tattoos for the self-expression that they are but also take into consideration how having such a tattoo might impact their future. After all, unless you want to pay to have it removed (a costly endeavor), it’s permanent. That’s kind of the point of the tattoo.

If you’re a younger person (under that 30 year old mark) and seeking entry into law enforcement work, you need to consider it carefully before you get a tattoo.  Think about what you’re getting, where on your body, why you’re getting it and whether or not it will be visible in uniform. We may not like it and it may be indicative of a preexisting prejudice, but we have to remember that it’s not just the general public whose opinion we have to be concerned with. It’s also the opinions of city or county council members, state’s attorneys, judges and more. We have to take into consideration the fact that, right or wrong, every person out there that sees our tattoo will appreciate it, not care about it, or hold it against us somehow. Are you prepared for that?

If you’re already in police work, before you get a tattoo or expand one you have, double check your agency’s policies on such. BEFORE you buck the system and go get that tattoo that violates policy just so you can test your First Amendment protections, why not go talk to your supervisor or Chief of Police first?  “Hey, Chief… I was thinking about getting…” and see what s/he says? It would be far better to know the Chief is on your side BEFORE someone else complains about a tattoo you get than to find yourself suddenly suspended from duty while you get investigated for violating General Orders, and your only hope is the attorney you can’t afford to pay once your unemployed.

The point is… ask before making a permanent decision. Tattoos can be beautiful and they can be very expressive. Every tattoo I have has a symbolic and sentimental meaning for me. I wouldn’t consider any of them even potentially offensive. Even so, I have experienced, at least three times in the past now, where even having a tattoo at all has been viewed in a negative light. Thankfully, I was already well into my police career before I got my first tattoo and my Chief of Police (at that time) couldn’t fire me for having it (or he would have). We had no General Orders regarding tattoos at all.

For all of the above, tattoos are becoming more mainstream and more widely accepted. As the younger generations come up and grow into our law enforcement supervisory positions, tattoos are seeing less scorn and more appreciation. None of that removes the requirement for tattoos to NOT be obviously offensive and none of that removes the requirement that we comply with agency general orders.

If you want to show of your ink, visit Police Ink on Facebook. There are some interesting law enforcement oriented tattoos to be viewed there and you can submit yours if you’re interested in doing so. If nothing else, there are plenty of examples you can show your Chain of Command that demonstrate how tattoos can be law enforcement positive.

By Frank Borelli |