New Texas PD policy will let tattooed officers roll up their sleeves

The policy will still forbid tattoos on an officer's hands, neck or face, and any racially discriminatory or otherwise offensive tattoos

By St. John Barned-Smith
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Houston police Sgt. Bryan "BK" Klevens always hated the summers.

The heat was bad enough, but Klevens had to cover his inked arms with long sleeves to avoid running afoul of the police department's tattoo policy.

"It truly felt like the heat would be pushing your body beyond its limits," he said. "Between the heat, the humidity ... it was painful."

He tried all sorts of tricks to stay cool – neck fans, hi-tech wraps, ice chips under his bulletproof vest -- to combat the enervating heat.

This summer, however, relief appears to be in sight. The Houston Police Department is set to relax its policy in coming weeks to allow tattooed officers to wear short-sleeve uniforms like their non-tatted peers.

"Employee comfort is really important. We work in a very hot environment here in Houston," said Chief Art Acevedo. "We've got to change with the times and we're changing our policy."

The policy, similar to one Acevedo implemented while chief in Austin, will still forbid tattoos on an officer's hands, neck or face, and any racially discriminatory or otherwise offensive tattoos.

The change comes as the department has allowed officers to wear baseball caps and less-formal uniforms. But some longtime department veterans say the changes will make officers look less professional.

Acevedo dismissed their concerns.

"Professionalism is about conduct, professionalism is about service, professionalism is about results, not a tattoo on an arm or a leg," he said.

He said he will formally roll out the new tattoo policy before the summer heat arrives.

Klevens expects the change to bring some new clientele to Prison Break Tattoos, the business he owns on Washington. More importantly, it also will provide welcome relief to his sweat-drenched former colleagues in patrol.

"What a relief it's going to be," said Klevens, now assigned to narcotics. "People are excited about it."

Pushing for short sleeves

For years, tattoos went unnoticed in the department.

Then, soon after Chief Harold Hurtt took charge in 2004, the department outlawed visible tattoos.

With the growing popularity of tattoos in recent years across the country, however, the department relaxed its rules in 2016, allowing officers to wear short-sleeve uniforms as long as they kept nylon coverings over any visible tattoos, said Joseph Gamaldi, vice president of the Houston Police Officers Union, which has pushed for the policy change.

"We feel this is the logical next step," he said.

Other departments have been grappling with their tattoo policies in recent years. The Philadelphia Police Department adopted a policy earlier this month prohibiting officers from having any tattoos that are "offensive, extremist, indecent, racist or sexist while on duty" after a controversy over a bike officer photographed displaying what appeared to be a Nazi tattoo.

Like the new HPD policy, Philadelphia forbids head, face and neck tattoos, and also forbids scalp tattoos and more extreme body modification, such as "tongue splitting" and branding.

In September, the Chicago Police Department relaxed its tattoo policy, following a dust-up in 2015 when former Superintendent Garry McCarthy unilaterally banned visible tattoos, leading to a lawsuit and ultimately independent arbitration in favor of the union and tattooed officers.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office forbids the display of tattoos by deputies unless on undercover assignment, and bans outright any offensive tattoos. The Houston Fire Department's personnel guidelines do not mention tattoos, a spokesman said.

Ready for change

Houston Senior Officer Michael Bates is already mapping out his next tattoo.

Tats honoring his Irish heritage and his job cover his back, shoulder, chest and leg. Because of department policy, however, he's always avoided getting art on his arms.

Now he wants a sleeve tattoo down his left arm.

"I'm just glad that this chief has come along and is going to establish a standard that I hope will stick," said Bates, a Special Response Group officer.

Acevedo, meanwhile, has no tattoos and no plans to get inked.

"Oh no," he said. "My mom will come out of her grave and will hit me over the head. As much as I may want to get a tattoo, I'm a momma's boy, so I won't be getting one any time soon."


©2017 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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