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Invisible ink

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When you call the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) for help, what are the most important things you expect from a responding officer? Certainly promptness, courtesy and concern would top the list. But does it matter if the officer has a tattoo on his or her arm? Should it matter?

  Starting next month, the NOPD will have a new policy on tattoos: none may be visible on officers. Those who have tattoos will have to cover them with long-sleeved shirts or some form of concealment. This, predictably, has not gone over well with local police unions, who consider it another blow to a department that has both deep morale issues and serious trouble attracting and retaining new cops.

  The new rule comes from Chief Ronal Serpas. The rule has been criticized by those who see tattoos as no big deal and hailed by others who see them as unprofessional (or worse). But visible ink isn't just being targeted by the NOPD; law enforcement agencies around the country have struggled with this issue for years. What they've found is that it's a lot more complicated than issuing a complete acceptance or ban.

  Is a large or a full-sleeve tattoo less acceptable than a smaller one? What about location — is a tattoo on a bicep more permissible than one on the neck, or the face? And that doesn't begin to address the issue of content. How do you separate a tattoo with a violent or perceived negative message versus a tattoo commemorating the birth of a child or the death of a fallen comrade? Should those who performed heroic actions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and then chose to memorialize the event in body ink be punished?

  An article last year in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel outlined the various ways law enforcement agencies in the Sunshine State attempted to answer these questions. In Palm Beach County, for instance, the sheriff's office allows one tattoo per arm, and each cannot be larger than 3 inches square. In Boca Raton, new hires cannot have visible tattoos; in Miramar, the ban is total.

  Rather than try to regulate tattoos, many law enforcement agencies have just banned visible tats outright or established strict rules. The Los Angeles Police Department — like the NOPD, a scandal-plagued agency that had a federal consent decree imposed on it in 2001 — has made rules for tattoos, due at least in part to some lawless cops who got matching tattoos that celebrated officer-involved shootings. Today a candidate's tattoos are "evaluated on a case-by-case basis," according to the LAPD website. In 2007, the New York Police Department banned visible tattoos on its officers, partly after discovering a recruit had the word "JIHAD" tattooed on his arm.

  Along with the stated goals of professional appearance, we suspect Serpas hopes to avoid such content-related issues with his new policy. The NOPD has enough to do without worrying about the size of officers' tattoos or making judgments as to their content, appropriateness or professionalism.

  Regardless of anyone's feelings on the matter, it's Serpas' call, and he's in line with many law enforcement agencies around the country. Still, the risk of running off good officers over a bit of body art is real. A 2008 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 36 percent of Americans between 18 and 25 years old have a tattoo — and among those 25 to 40 years old, it's 40 percent. Those are the ages at which recruits join the force. Moreover, many young people seeking a career in law enforcement are ex-military, where tattoos are commonplace, if not the norm. What agency would want to discourage a highly qualified candidate who had a tattoo commemorating his or her service, or comrades fallen on the battlefield?

  The issue already has made at least one law enforcement agency think twice. Vermont State Police (VSP) banned visible tattoos on its troopers in 2007 — but is now reconsidering the ban. "We feel we're losing quality candidates," VSP Capt. Dave Notte told the newspaper Seven Days last month. For the NOPD, which is struggling to attract recruits and keep well-qualified officers from decamping to other jobs, this has to be a concern.

  These days, any business with a significant workforce born after 1973 likely has a good percentage of tattooed employees (and that includes Gambit). Serpas can run his department as he sees fit, but if an NOPD officer has helped you in the past, chances are you didn't notice the ink — just the professionalism and courtesy.

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