In an effort to boost recruitment, safety forces like Elyria’s are allowing visible body art
CLEVELAND — Ohio law enforcement agencies worried about recruitment are revising their policies on tattoos and police officers, reflecting overall popularity that’s seen the number of Americans with tattoos grow to almost one in four.
Some residents associate tattoos with gangs or criminal activity, Elyria Police Chief Michael Medders said. That’s a holdover from the previous generation, when those with tattoos usually were members of the military or people released from prison, he said.
But tattoos are popular among young people of all backgrounds now, and eliminating potential police officers with tattoos from consideration would exclude too many people, including former members of the military, he said.
Last week, the State Highway Patrol revised its tattoo policy, stating that employees with visible body art cannot add more tattoos.
Sheriff’s deputies in Medina County in Northeast Ohio are permitted to have tattoos, but the department is drawing the line at jewelry in noses, lips, eyes and tongues while on duty, said sheriff’s Chief Deputy Ken Baca.
“Body piercing and tattoos seem to be an acceptable practice,” Baca said. “It’s going to be interesting in the future.”
A federal appeals court ruled in 2006 that a Connecticut police department could force officers to cover up tattoos the department deemed racist. The officers said the art represented their military service in Vietnam, but the department argued the officers’ spider web tattoos depicted white supremacist symbols.
Police agencies across the country and in Ohio have responded to the ruling by adopting rules on how much body art officers can reveal. Many officers are being told to cover tattoos while on duty and to limit the number of tattoos on their limbs.
Several police departments in Northeast Ohio have written policies that say officers cannot have more than 25 percent of their exposed arms and legs covered with ink. Officials want police officers to keep a spit-shined image when dealing with the public.
“Officers shouldn’t wear tattoos that are contrary to what we enforce,” said Walter Ugrinic, police chief in suburban Shaker Heights.
The Shaker Heights department recently negotiated a tattoo policy with dispatchers and plans to do the same with officers. Tattoos will not have to be covered as long as the art is not provocative, Ugrinic said.
Cleveland’s police force does not have a tattoo policy, department spokesman Thomas Stacho said.
Jamie Bonnette, a Cuyahoga County sheriff’s detective, sports nine tattoos. But just one is visible when he wears a short-sleeve shirt: a tattoo on his forearm of St. Michael, the patron saint of law enforcement.
“It’s a different day and age,” he said. “But it’s going to look terrible when I’m 80.”