Some up in arms over tattoo rule


Under present requirements of the Mount Airy Police Department, someone with a visible tattoo such as this is prohibited from being hired as an officer.

Should the visible presence of a tattoo keep an otherwise-qualified applicant from being hired for a job?

That is a question now faced by Mount Airy Police Department officials as they seek to fill vacancies on the force. It has been alleged that one factor behind a relatively large number of openings could be the department’s strict policy on body art.

“Any visible tattoos, that would be an automatic disqualifier,” Chief Dale Watson said last week.

However, Watson added that this longstanding policy is being re-examined as a hiring standard — at a time when other law enforcement agencies nationwide are relaxing such requirements.

“Societal views have changed,” Watson said regarding tattoos, which have become prevalent among younger citizens.

A report in late June disclosed that the city police department was down eight officers, out of a total sworn-officer force of 41. Watson has said that the department attracts plenty of applicants when openings arise, but many often cannot pass criminal background checks and other requirements he says reflect efforts to have the best-qualified officers on the streets.

After an article regarding the vacancies was published, one citizen reacted with the idea that part of the problem could be due to the no-visible-tattoo policy. Don White related a situation with a family member to illustrate his point.

“Four years ago, the MAPD sponsored my stepson in the BLET (Basic Law Enforcement Training) program,” White recalled.

“Upon graduating with several awards, he applied for a position with the MAPD and was turned down because of a tattoo on his forearm,” White added. “My stepson then applied for and was accepted to a position by a department on the North Carolina coast. He is now a corporal and works full time for the city which hired him and also as a part-time officer with a neighboring city.”

White pointed to a military connection and the ranks of returning veterans who often are seen as good candidates to fill law enforcement positions.

“Most people, especially the younger generation, who have served in the armed forces will have a tattoo. I strongly suspect the MAPD is missing out on fine-quality applicants because of the policy.”

Chief Watson says this has been true in some cases.

“It’s not that common, to be quite honest,” he said of job seekers being disqualified for visible body art. “But we have lost good applicants because of it.”

Watson said the Mount Airy Police Department’s present policy on tattoos pre-dates his time with the agency, being in effect “under several administrations prior to my serving.” Watson joined the department in the late 1990s.

But the chief said discussions recently have been under way among the police hierarchy about changing the policy to a situation in which each applicant bearing a visible tattoo would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

For example, someone with a tattoo might not be rejected unless it contained an offensive message or symbol.

Watson did not offer a timetable for a possible change, but indicated that the key is achieving a revised policy that conforms to expectations in the community for officers while still being fair to job applicants.

“We will be looking at it,” he said, acknowledging the popularity of tattoos and the notion that citizen views about the practice have softened over the years.

National trend

The Mount Airy police chief’s willingness to revisit the longtime tattoo restriction here is being mirrored in other cities across the country.

It was reported Monday that police in Manchester, New Hampshire, had revised their tattoo policy after an op-ed piece by a veteran’s wife.

Zach Ferguson, who had spent eight years on active duty in the U.S. Army, was prohibited from applying to Manchester and other area police departments because of the tattoos he had gotten while serving, according to his wife.

After her op-ed piece appeared in a newspaper recently, Chief Nick Willard decided it was time to revise the tattoo policy to be more inclusive.

Three police officers in Chicago are ratcheting up their opposition to tattoo policies a notch.

They have filed a federal lawsuit over a policy announced in June which bars tattoos and body brandings from being visible while on duty. They say they have tattoos on their arms are a result of serving in the military.

And it’s not just police officers who are up in arms over such rules.

Firefighters in Mandeville, Louisiana, are required to wear long sleeves during medical calls if they have any visible tattoos.

Critics say being forced to wear long-sleeved shirts is putting fire personnel at risk during the summer heat in Louisiana.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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