Visibly Tattooed Police Officers Are Becoming More Widely Accepted—and It’s About Time

visibly tattooed police officers
Credit: Unsplash / Jordan / @suspected

With the tattoo industry growing so quickly—and with so many more people rocking visible ink—tattoos are becoming more accepted in the workplace. However, society hasn’t always been this accepting. In fact, the stigma around tattoos that still exists to some degree, stems from the fact that in the past tattoos were associated with crime. It’s precisely this association that makes for such lively debate about visibly tattooed police officers and whether the people dedicated to combating crime can show off their ink while in uniform.

Take this 2016 op-ed in the Telegraph, in which author Angela Epstein vehemently disagreed with the Police Federation of England and Wales’s opinion that officers should be allowed to have tattoos on their hands, neck and even faces. “Being a member of the police is not about self expression—it’s about communal needs,” she wrote. “That’s why tattoos need to be concealed by our officers of the law, to reinforce a sense of trust, of patriarchal protection.”

But associating tattoos with criminals is such an old-school way of thinking. If other workplaces are accepting of tattooed employees, shouldn’t it follow that tattooed police officers be accepted too? Depending on the police department or city you ask, the answer varies. 

In the States, some police departments still refuse officers the right to expose their tattoos on the job, while others have opted to change their policies to be more inclusive of body art. And over the past few months, there’s been a slew of adjustments to various official policies, including these five below. All are worth noting as the conversation continues to spark debate—and more importantly, as tattoos are appropriately accepted as a mainstream medium of expression. 

1. The Philadelphia Police Department allows some exposed ink

After an officer exposed his apparent Nazi-inspired tattoo at Philadelphia’s Black Resistance March in 2016, the city’s police department instituted a policy prohibiting cops from having tattoos that might be interpreted as promoting hatred or violence. 

But according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the local police labor union for wasn’t happy about the policy. It filed a complaint against the PD for instituting the new ruling—which also bans head, scalp, face, and neck pieces (cosmetic tattoos, like permanent makeup, are an exception)—without first consulting them. The complaint was dismissed though, so as it stands, officers in Philly can show off some tattoos, but others must remain hidden from the public eye. Deciding which tattoos are kosher, though, is ultimately is up to individual Commanding Officers in a given unit. 

2. But in Norfolk, Virginia officers are free to show off their tattoos

Police officers in Norfolk have been free to proudly show off their tattoos while on duty since the beginning of October, when the local police department updated its policy around visible ink—cops previously had to cover all visible tattoos while working—as a way of recruiting more people to the force. Police Chief Larry D. Boone said that he doesn’t want “personal style choices to impede our hiring practices, which sometimes prevents the most qualified candidates from a career in public safety,” as reported by a local ABC News affiliate. The new ruling’s one exemption? Pieces considered vulgar or offensive are not allowed on visibly tattooed police officers in an effort to keep the community feeling safe. 

3. In Methuen, Massachusetts, the police department asked locals for their thoughts

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The Methuen Police Department has always had a strict policy regarding officers in uniform and the visible display of tattoos. As a paramilitary organization built on tradition, officers were not allowed to display visible tattoos while in uniform. Times change and our agency believes change can be good. The Methuen Police Patrolman Association has been in discussions with the department to update and modify the policy to reflect the community standards of today’s society. In the past tattoos were seen as by many as unprofessional or frowned upon. Today, ink art has become more socially acceptable and for many people tells a story about who a person is and where they come from. A change in policy will also open up a new group of applicants who can now pursue a career as a police officer. Large police departments across the country, like Pittsburg, PA., Houston and Austin Texas have changed their tattoo policies. Our new policy proposal would affect tattoos from the short sleeve line down to the wrists or visible on the legs. No neck tattoos or hand tattoos are permitted unless approved by the Chief of Police or his designee. We have created an on-line survey to poll community interest in this topic and appreciate your input. Please click on the link provided and answer the following question: Do you support Methuen Police officers being allowed to display visible tattoos?

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The decision to make officers cover their tattoos is rooted in concern for public safety—which is precisely why the Methuen Police Department asked locals for their thoughts about updating the policy. In a message posted to their Facebook and Instagram pages, the police department confirmed that at the moment, officers can’t display visible tattoos while in uniform—but that could change. “The Methuen Police Patrolman Association has been in discussions with the department to update and modify the policy to reflect the community standards of today’s society,” it reads. “In the past tattoos were seen as by many as unprofessional or frowned upon. Today, ink art has become more socially acceptable and for many people tells a story about who a person is and where they come from.”

To figure out how the community felt themselves, the Methuen PD then set up an online survey earlier this month asking locals to share their sentiments about a new tattoo policy. But as of publish time the survey is now closed, so here’s to hoping we’ll hear more about the decision soon. 

4. State police in Vermont can have tattoos but can’t show them off

Vermont’s state troopers have a relatively progressive policy, although it’s by no means inclusive and accepting. Prior to July 1 of this year, the Vermont State Police wouldn’t accept any applicants with visible tattoos, regardless of how well the ink could be covered up. Now, the revised policy allows prospective officers to have visible tattoos on their arms, but they still need to hide the designs when wearing short sleeves. But, it’s not like they’ll have to go out and spend a ton on foundation or concealer: the department will provide them with fabric sleeves to cover up their designs if necessary.. 

5. Portland goes a step further than the rest

While there are now an increasing amount of police departments who allow their officers to be inked, most draw the line at face or neck pieces. But in Portland, Oregon, because of what the police department has called a “critical talent shortage,” according to The Oregonian, tattoos above the collar might soon be accepted into the force. Though the Portland Police Bureau hasn’t reached a verdict on neck tattoos quite yet, allowing them is currently under consideration. 

If you liked our story Visibly Tattooed Police Officers are Becoming More Widely Accepted—and It’s About Time, make sure to check out our post Here’s What Happens When Outdated Local Laws Affect the Tattoo Industry on a Larger Level.

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