Author: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
By Phil Ferolito Yakima Herald-Republic
YAKIMA, Wash. — Yakima Police Officer Sarah Dexter has two skulls, lilies, a rose and other tattoos that cover her right arm, but she’s not allowed to show them while on duty.
Because of the police department’s restrictive policy on tattoos, she has to wear long sleeves year-round.
“In the summer time it’s pretty brutal,” she said. “It can be a lot, definitely dehydrate faster. I have to carry more water than most people do.”
But that’s about to change as the department plans to relax its tattoo policy, initiated in 2012.
Under the policy, officers are required to cover tattoos and aren’t allowed to have any on their face, neck or hands. The only exception is a tattoo of a single wedding ring.
The policy was enacted after the department began seeing officers with controversial tattoos that possibly could be construed as discriminatory or hate messages or show sexual body parts, said interim Chief Greg Jones.
But Jones, who has a tattoo on his leg, says the policy is too restrictive and is possibly driving away potential officer candidates.
“Years ago I was bicycle officer and we had a captain who was absolutely disgusted that I had a tattoo on my leg,” he recalled with a laugh.
Tattoos are broadly accepted and increasingly popular in today’s society, he said.
This trend is leading to departments elsewhere and even military branches to loosen such policies, said recruiting officer Hailie Meyers.
Earlier this month, she visited Camp Pendleton and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, where she saw firsthand a more relaxed policy.
“I think this will help us in recruiting some of the military folks,” Meyers said. “The military is relaxing theirs, so we should do the same.”
She’s seen people in criminal justice classes interested in law enforcement, and they have tattoos.
“I know we’re competing with other agencies who have more relaxed policies and I think it’s something we should do so we aren’t losing potential candidates,” Meyers said.
The department doesn’t have any statistics on the number of candidates lost over the tattoo policy, but Meyers said she’s heard of several who didn’t even bother applying after hearing about it.
Although officers soon will be able to show their tattoos, restrictions most likely will remain on ink depicting hateful, discriminatory or sexual messages, Jones said.
The department is working with the officers’ union and other interested parties to devise the new policy, which is expected to be complete by the end of the year, Jones said.
Before deciding to relax the policy, the department used its Facebook page and other social media accounts to ask the public for its input.
More than 90 percent of the 2,500 residents who responded favored allowing officers to show their tattoos, Jones said.
“It’s funny to see that the public doesn’t have any discord for it,” he said. “They’re supportive of it, overwhelmingly.”
Allowing officers to show their tattoos reveals their human side, which can help build relations with a community, Dexter said.
“I think it will show the community that we’re normal people, too, and we do the same things other people do,” she said. “It’s just that our jobs hold us to higher standards — which it should — but we’re also just normal like everyone else.”
Dexter said tattoos make for interesting talking points and sometimes disarm witnesses or even help divert the attention of someone who’s suicidal.
“For me it’s actually helped a lot with talking points getting on a personal level with people to help them in different ways,” Dexter said.