Chicago police officers sue over tattoo cover-up rule

The officers, all of whom served in the military and have tattoos on their arms, argue in the suit that the policy violates their First Amendment rights

By Jeremy Gorner
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Three Chicago police officers filed a federal lawsuit against the department Thursday, challenging its new policy that requires uniformed officers to cover their tattoos.

The officers, all of whom served in the military and have tattoos on their arms, argue in the suit that the policy violates their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and expression. The city of Chicago is named as the sole defendant.

According to the Police Department's new policy, which went into effect June 12, tattoos and body brandings cannot be visible on officers "while on duty or representing the department, whether in uniform, conservative business attire, or casual dress."

The hands, face, neck and other areas not covered by clothing must be covered with "matching skin tone adhesive bandage or tattoo cover-up tape," according to the policy. Uniformed officers also are barred from wearing baseball caps, and knit caps in the winter, under the new policy.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Officer Daniel Medici, a nine-year veteran of the department, bears a tattoo that honors his service in the Marine Corps. An Iraq War veteran, he has a "wings and halos" tattoo in remembrance of his fallen comrades, according to the suit.

The two other plaintiffs, Officers John Kukielka and Dennis Leet, each have a religious tattoo of St. Michael, the patron and protector of police, mariners, paratroopers and sickness, the suit says. Medici also bears a religious tattoo. Leet and Kukielka both served in the Air Force and were hired by the Police Department in 1999 and 2009, respectively.

But according to the lawsuit, patrol officers who must wear extra clothing to cover tattoos or wear the cover-up tape experience overheating in warm months and skin irritation and discomfort from the tape.

Spokesmen for the Police Department and the city's Law Department said Thursday evening they had yet to see the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.

Three days before the directive went into effect, a department spokeswoman issued a brief statement saying the changes to the uniform policy were "to promote uniformity and professionalism."

The spokeswoman, Jennifer Rottner, also said officers were using too many uniform variations, "making Chicago police officers less immediately identifiable to the public."

The department's largest union, which represents rank-and-file officers, quickly voiced its opposition, saying the department should have negotiated the changes before making any announcement. The Fraternal Order of Police has filed a formal complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board alleging that the revisions to the uniform policy violate their collective bargaining agreement.

A number of officers also have spoken out to the Tribune against the move, saying their tattoos are part of their identities. A police source familiar with the new policy has said the changes were prompted by newer officers whose tattoos were "over the top." Tattoos covering arms and necks, as well as the wearing of baseball caps backward, "had gotten extreme," the source said.

The source also has said the department was sympathetic to officers with tattoos commemorating their military service but ultimately decided it was too "difficult to draw a line."

The move put Chicago in line with other big-city police departments like those in New York and Los Angeles that have implemented similar changes to their uniform policies as body art has become more mainstream.

Copyright 2015 the Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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