Controversy Over Oklahoma City Police Policy Banning Tattoos

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK &#8211 At a time when the Oklahoma City Police Department is looking for a few good officers, the head of the police union says a hiring policy banning some tattoos is preventing some of the best qualified applicants from joining the ranks.

John George, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 123, said he’s aware of several instances of the department rejecting former military members for jobs because they sported visible body art. Others didn’t bother to apply because of the prohibition, he said.

“These are veterans that need jobs. We’re turning them down, and they’re going to work other places,” George said. “They try to downplay it that we’re not losing very many, but we’re losing good people because of it.”

Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty disagrees, saying the department enjoys an abundance of qualified, tattoo-free applicants, among them military veterans.

“I don’t buy the fact we’re losing really good recruits,” Citty said.

Citty defended the department’s tattoo policy, the result of a 2007 arbiter’s decision. Under the policy, applicants with a “significant” amount of visible tattoos will not be considered for hire. Those with an “insignificant” amount of visible tattoos may go forward in the application process and be given the chance to medically remove tattoos at their own expense.

“If people want to have tattoos and want to be police officers, they have to get them removed,” Citty said.

The department doesn’t track those who voluntarily remove tattoos to improve their chances for employment. But in the last two years, at least three officers had tattoos medically removed before joining the force, police spokesman Capt. Dexter Nelson said. Others removed tattoos but later were not hired for other reasons.

While he’s not against tattoos, Citty said law enforcement officers serve the general public and need to appear unbiased.

Over the years, Citty said he’s fielded several citizen complaints regarding tattooed officers.

“Having tattoos and visible symbols is not appropriate for a law enforcement agency in my opinion,” Citty said. “That’s where we are right now and that’s where we’ll stay.”

Efforts by The Oklahoman to interview a tattooed veteran rejected for hire by Oklahoma City were unsuccessful. George, the union president, said those he spoke with did not want to discuss their cases publicly for fear of damaging employment opportunities elsewhere.

The union and police administrators long have tangled over tattoos.

Changing policies

In 2006, the department banned visible tattoos, brands or intentional scarring. Officers with body art had to cover it with makeup, long sleeves or bandages or have the art permanently removed.

Shortly after the policy went into effect, an officer ordered to cover up his tattoo filed a grievance.

The union backed the officer and the matter went to arbitration.

Under a 2007 settlement, about 125 officers with existing visible tattoos were no longer required to cover them, a police spokesman said. But any new visible tattoo had to be covered. The policy also banned any tattoo that was obscene, sexually explicit or promoted discrimination along racial or religious lines, or those that symbolized gang affiliation, extremist groups or drug use. Tattoos, brands or scarring on the head, neck and hands also were banned, a policy also followed by the Norman and Tulsa departments.

Unlike Oklahoma City, Tulsa will hire an applicant with a visible tattoo on the arm, for example, if they are willing to cover the tattoo with long sleeves year round.

In Norman, officers can’t have indecent tattoos that “shock the moral sense” by inciting “lustful thought.” Cosmetic tattoos, such as permanent eyebrows, are allowed. The police chief must approve any visible tattoos.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol changed its policy in 2012 to no longer allow visible tattoos. Troopers who had visible tattoos before the change are exempt from the regulation.

The proliferation of tattoo sleeves that cover most or all of an arm prompted the change, spokeswoman Betsy Randolph said.

“We realize it’s an art, it’s an expression of a person’s personality, but the patrol has a very distinctive appearance and standards that have to be maintained,” Randolph said.

From The Oklahoman