Police tattoo bans called 'unreasonable'
By Tom Alex
The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa — Chris Morgan loves his job, but he hates that he has to go a little more undercover.
The West Des Moines police officer must wear a long-sleeved shirt when it's 90 degrees outside - all because of the tattoos on his forearms.
"I get so hot out there when I'm directing traffic," Morgan said. "I've sweated through my shirt and my vest."
Now, the Des Moines Police Department has joined police in West Des Moines and other Iowa cities in restricting body art.
The issue matters beyond officers' comfort. It has the potential of affecting hiring or limiting an opening for conversations with residents, one official said. With tattoos becoming mainstream, more law enforcement agencies wrestle with how much art to allow on exposed areas of the body - if any.
Stewart Barnes, president of the Des Moines police union, disagrees with the department's policy, put in place last month.
The policy says any tattoos, branding and intentional scarring on the face, head, neck, hands, exposed arms and exposed legs are prohibited. It applies to all department employees. Those who already have tattoos on exposed skin, like Barnes, are not affected. However, employees must provide photographs of the tattoos that are being grandfathered in. No new ones will be allowed on exposed skin.
"We believe this is an unreasonable change in policy," Barnes said. "I think it could have potential for narrowing the pool of eligible officers. If you know that for the rest of your career you are going to have to wear a long-sleeved shirt or have your tattoos removed, you might think twice about applying for the job."
He said on Tuesday that the union has filed a grievance.
He said his tattoos help him in his job at times.
"My tattoos give me common ground with young people," said Barnes, who is 48. "They come up to me and talk to me about tattoos."
Tattoos are more acceptable to the younger generation, said Des Moines Police Chief Judy Bradshaw, but she said she believes they detract from a professional image. "We don't allow beards, either," she said.
Said Maj. David Lillard: "Fifteen years from now tattoos may become so accepted that it won't even be an issue. But right now it is."
The West Des Moines Police Department has crafted a similar policy. It has no exceptions for officers already in the department.
Morgan, a former U.S. Marine, said West Des Moines police had no tattoo policy when he applied two years ago.
"I guess they didn't notice my tattoos when I ran the physical fitness tests," he said. "When I came in for my interview, I was dressed up and my tattoos didn't really show that much."
Later, when he went to the department, he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt.
"They were like, you know, deer in the headlights," Morgan recalled with a smile.
One officer who had been with the force for about 20 years is now required to wear long-sleeved shirts in the summertime. Morgan said the fact that his tattoos resulted in the policy did not escape that officer. "He was like, 'Thanks a lot,' " Morgan said.
Ben Madren, a tattoo artist in Des Moines, said he thinks tattoos are more acceptable than they once were. The Des Moines police policy surprised him.
"In this day and age, you are almost in the minority if you don't have them," Madren said.
There are differences in tattoo policies in Iowa and other major cities.
Sioux City police adopted a version last November that says officers cannot get new tattoos on exposed areas of the body. Candidates for the job can have tattoos on exposed skin when they are hired but cannot get new ones after they are hired.
"We don't allow beards, either," Sioux City Lt. Marti Reilly said. "But we can ask them to shave those off. It's different with a tattoo."
In Ames, Cmdr. Jim Robinson said officers and other employees hired after May 1, 2004, cannot have tattoos visible while in uniform. Those hired before that date are exempt. Officers and other employees may not add any other tattoos that would be visible.
The Los Angeles Police Department policy says officers in uniform and in civilian attire cannot display any tattoos or brandings while on duty. The tattoos must be covered by clothing or, at certain sizes, by a patch "as close to the wearer's skin color as is reasonably available."
Minneapolis Police Sgt. Jesse Garcia said his department has no tattoo policy. "Basically you just can't have them on your face," he said.
Copyright 2008 The Des Moines Register
Des Moines police's tattoo policy
1. Tattoos/branding/intentional scarring must be covered by the authorized uniform issued by the Des Moines Police Department or approved on-duty plainclothes.
2. Any tattoos/branding/intentional scarring on the face, head, neck, hands, exposed arms and exposed legs are prohibited. Exposed arms is defined as visible below the sleeve length of the uniform summer shirt or visible below the sleeve length of a summer shirt worn by plainclothes employees and non-sworn employees.
3. The concealing of tattoos/branding/intentional scarring through the use of Band-Aids, bandages or other such coverings, shall not be allowed.
4. An exception is made for any current employee having an existing visible tattoo prior to the effective date, provided such tattoos/branding/intentional scarring is acceptable. Acceptable is defined as not morally objectionable, racially oriented or sexually explicit as determined by the police chief.
All employees who fall under the exception will be required to provide photographic documentation of all existing visible tattoos/branding/intentional scarring. If employees granted an exception have any additional visible tattoos/branding/intentional scarring added, they will then fall under all the requirements of this chapter. All employees granted an exception will be required to cover all their tattoos/branding/intentional scarring while engaged in courtroom testimony. The police chief reserves the right to dictate other circumstances when employees covered under this exception will be required to cover their tattoos/branding/intentional scarring.