The Hartford Courant
HARTFORD — State police have loosened their policy on tattoos — acknowledging along with many of their municipal counterparts — that more young applicants with unblemished resumes will be inked.
The recently modified policy says people with visible tattoos may apply to be troopers.
“We’ve realized that it’s now becoming more culturally acceptable, and we don’t want to lose out on individuals who could be very good troopers just because of a tattoo,” state police spokeswoman Trooper Christine Jeltema said. “We want to be inclusive.”
With limited exceptions, state police still prohibit visible tattoos, but statistics show that excluding applicants with body art would shut out a wide demographic of young people.
Nearly four in 10 millennials, those born from 1981-96, have at least one tattoo, according to a Pew Research Center report. Those in the previous generation, Generation X, are not far behind, with 32% inked, while only 15 percent of Baby Boomers (1946-64) said they have a tattoo, according to the report.
“Moreover, one tattoo isn’t enough for many millennials,” Pew reported. “While 31% of tattooed millennials have just one tattoo, half have two to five tattoos. And 18% have six or more.”
Jeltema, 40, a U.S. Army veteran, noted that service members, in particular, often are inked. She has two tattoos on the inside of one wrist that memorialize her deployments to Eastern Europe and Iraq.
Manchester police spokesman Lt. Ryan Shea has much larger and more elaborate ink — a “sleeve” on his left arm that includes an American flag, lion’s head and a Spartan warrior. Manchester’s policy, like others around the state, allows cops to have visible tattoos, but prohibits images and words that are vulgar, obscene, racist or show gang allegiance, among other restrictions.
But shunning applicants with appropriate body art would not promote public safety, Shea said.
“Certainly you wouldn’t want to restrict your applicant pool based on appropriate tattoos that are visible to the public,” he said.
That’s especially true now, when law enforcement agencies in the state and around the nation are struggling to attract qualified people. Recruiters in the past several years have softened policies on past marijuana use and credit history, among other steps meant to broaden applicant pools.
The state police policy does not permit troopers to have visible tattoos while on duty in their summer uniforms. The one exception is for tattooed “commitment rings,” not to exceed 1/2-inch wide, on a finger of each hand. Otherwise, tattoos on the arms, on the back of the hands or behind the ears on the neck must be covered. Larger tattoos on the arms can be covered with a material of a color as close as possible to the person’s skin tone. The policy also covers scarification and brands.
The policy’s lead paragraph reads, in part: “The Connecticut State Police recognizes the personal appearance of its sworn uniform personnel, when in the public eye, has a direct impact on public confidence and thereby on the ability of individual personnel to perform their official duties.”
A Harris poll from 2015 asked respondents how comfortable, if at all, they would be with a variety of professionals — from athletes to judges — who had visible tattoos. Seventy percent said they would be either “extremely comfortable” or “somewhat comfortable” with a tattooed police officer, while 30 percent said they would be either “not very comfortable” or “not at all comfortable.” The comfort level, however, dropped among older respondents.
Municipal police departments’ tattoo policies vary. Coventry’s policy says tattoos “will not be exposed or visible while on-duty and/or representing the department.” As with the state police, a tattoo or brand in the form of a ring is permissible, one on each hand, and female officers may have permanent eye-liner.
Prohibited are “tattoos or brands anywhere on the body that promote racism/discrimination, indecency, extremist or supremacist philosophies, lawlessness, violence, or contain sexually explicit material.”
Bloomfield’s policy, along with prohibiting racist, gang-related and obscene tattoos, says the police chief can order officers to cover tattoos that the chief deems unprofessional. Police Chief Paul Hammick, a 30-year law enforcement veteran and former deputy police chief in Hartford, said he has not had to use that authority in his nine years in Bloomfield.
Appropriate tattoos, Hammick said, are not a reflection of a police officer’s ability to do the job, and In fact, some of the most conscientious officers he knows have tattoos.
He did recall a controversy over cops’ tattoos in Hartford that went all the way to a federal appeals court. In 2006, the court ruled that officers with tattoos deemed offensive could be ordered not to display them, ruling against five cops who contended that the ban violated their First Amendment rights. The court found that the rights of public employees are significantly more limited than those of the general public.
The dispute began when a detective complained in 2002 that several officers’ spider web tattoos symbolized “race hatred of non-whites and Jews.” A lawyer for the tatted cops, Jon L. Schoenhorn, said he found that the web tattoo began during the Vietnam War, and each line of the web pertained to an overseas tour of duty. Schoenhorn conceded that a white supremacy group had adopted the spider tattoo, among dozens of others, but he said the officers should not be punished for that.
Most departments that allow visible tattoos draw the line at facial ink.
In March 2019, New Haven’s board of police commissioners tabled a hearing on whether to fire Officer Jason Bandy after Bandy agreed to cover his three facial tattoos, The New Haven Register reported. The issue was not tattoos or Bandy himself, the paper quoted Police Chief Otoniel Reyes as saying, but what the department represents.
“We all signed up to do a job; we all signed up to a particular brand. And that brand should be able to maintain its integrity,” Reyes was quoted as saying. “When an officer walks in with tattoos on their face, there are segments of the population that we serve that may be confused and offended by that — that may not understand what that’s all about, that may question the mental stability of the officer who does that.”
Bandy has a pending lawsuit against the city, claiming gender discrimination. The suit says the police department has no rules against tattoos, and in any case, female officers have never been disciplined for body modifications that include tattooed eyebrows, piercings, nail polish, makeup and hair dye, the lawsuit says.
Windsor Locks police Officer Joe Malone has a full-sleeve tattoo on his right arm, a tribal design that includes the initials of his father and son. Malone, 36, said he told Chief Eric Osanitsch about the design before he had the tattoo done last summer.
“It’s just something I always wanted,” he said.
Asked about the public reception to his body art, Malone said it has helped him on the job.
“I actually find it to be an ice breaker,” he said. “It’s all been positive in my experience.”