Tattoo displays now taboo for Anne Arundel police

The Baltimore Sun

A new requirement that Anne Arundel County police personnel cover up their tattoos - even if it forces bike patrol or animal control officers to don long sleeves, pants or turtlenecks in scorching heat - has the rank and file hot and bothered.

The week-old policy, among the strictest in the state, requires that all personnel, including volunteers, cover up visible tattoos when they are on duty.

The aim of the policy shift is "to promote the uniformity of appearance ... to maintain neutrality ... to foster discipline and to encourage public confidence," according to a memo sent a week ago by Col. James E. Teare Sr., the police chief.

The officers union filed a grievance Tuesday, saying the measure is too stringent and could hamper recruitment efforts, especially among military veterans.

"When you add the long-sleeve shirt and tie or turtleneck with bulletproof vest and gun belt, it makes for very hot and uncomfortable conditions," said Cpl. O'Brien Atkinson, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Current personnel should be grandfathered in, he said, and they should be allowed to cover up tattoos with make-up, wristbands or bandages.

And leeway should be given during special operations, Atkinson said, because "we'd hate to tip someone off when someone in a long-sleeve shirt or turtleneck comes up to them asking to buy drugs."

Across the state, police departments vary in their stance on tattoos. Whereas Montgomery County takes an any-tattoo-anywhere approach, Baltimore County and city prohibit police from displaying tattoos.

The Baltimore County policy doesn't specify how tattoos should be covered but at least one officer uses an elastic bandage to cover a Marine Corps tattoo on his forearm, said Bill Toohey, a department spokesman.

Baltimore City requires officers to cover their tattoos with clothing.

Howard County's policy, which went into effect in late 2005, forbids officers from having visible tattoos on their face, neck, head or hands, doesn't stipulate how such markings should be covered.

The Carroll County Sheriff's Office doesn't have any restrictions for its deputies, but Lt. Phil Kasten said the department is considering implementing one.

Most departments ban obscene, offensive, sexist and racist tattoos.

Nationally, departments in Los Angeles and San Diego have ordered their rank-and-file to cover tattoos while working. Houston's 2005 ban requires officers to wear winter gear year-round or have tattoos removed. In Oklahoma City, the police chief's anti-tattoo mandate was tossed out this year after the union argued that the directive had not been negotiated.

Atkinson said he has already fielded calls from a department secretary with a tattoo on her ankle who has to trade her summer dresses for pants, and another woman who works in animal control with a star on her wrist who will be required to wear long sleeves.

The department includes 681 sworn officers, 240 civilians and 140 school crossing guards, and many volunteers who are senior citizens and veterans, Atkinson said. The new policy affects at least 20 officers and likely many more civilian personnel, he said. The union has asked Teare for a moratorium until it can weigh in.

"We have no problem with the chief implementing a policy governing tattoos and body art, but there were no negotiations," Atkinson said.

The directive comes at a time when tattoos of all sorts - tribal bands, memorials to the dead, and the run-of-the-mill-rose --- are rising in popularity. According to a recent study out of Ohio University and the Scripps Howard News Service, about 30 percent of Americans ages 25 to 34 have body art. About 28 percent of people younger than 25 have tattoos.

Doug Ward, a retired major in the Maryland State Police and director for the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University, said departments across the country are facing a recruiting crisis and must be careful about instituting policies that discourage younger recruits.

"Why would you want to exclude someone who is otherwise a great candidate because he decided that while in the Navy he would get a tattoo?" Ward said. "Police officers have uniforms so they can be uniform. ... I'm not sure what [the Anne Arundel policy] accomplishes."

In an effort to boost recruitment, and in an acknowledgement of the popularity of tattoos, the Army last year loosened its tattoo policy to permit enlisted men and women to have them on their hands and the back of their necks.

Yet the Marines, many of whom have tattoos up and down their arms and legs, have tightened their policy. Starting Sunday, Marines will be banned from getting large tattoos or collections of small ones that are visible when they are wearing a T-shirt and shorts. Current Marines will be grandfathered in, but they must document existing tattoos to ensure that they don't add any after the ban is put into effect.

Like many police departments, Anne Arundel County pulls from the military ranks to staff its force. The new policy could hurt its efforts to fill out a force that is down about 50 officers, Atkinson said.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said tattoos are very popular in the military - back in the day, many sailors got a tattoo at every port. Now veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming back with battle tattoos with weightier meaning.

Davis said the new policy could shrink the recruiting pool, but could improve the public's respect for officers.

Atkinson countered that tattoos don't compromise officers' authority. "The officers who have tattoos say they have never had any negative response with regards to tattoos and to the contrary they have actually had positive interaction," he said. "A lot of officers say it strikes up conversation."

Sun reporters Rona Marech, Phillip McGowan, Rochelle McConkie, Laura McCandlish, Annie Linskey and Josh Mitchell contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad