Pennsylvania State Troopers' tattoos become a focal point of negotiations

PSP tattoos

The two-page email that landed in the inboxes of top commanders at the Pennsylvania State Police last summer was ominous.  “Due to recent reports of members acquiring tattoos without authorization,” the July 8 message directed, “a staff inspection is ordered.”  The email was from Lt. Col. Lisa Christie, a top deputy to state police Commissioner Tyree C. Blocker.  She wanted every trooper rounded up and examined for any body tattoos visible when officers wear the agency’s short-sleeved summer uniform.  Col. Christie’s email told commanders to include pictures and detailed spreadsheets when reporting the results.  The sudden and furious crackdown at the agency resulted in body checks for hundreds of officers, and has now become the focus of heated negotiations between Mr. Blocker and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, which represents the more than 4,000 troopers.  They are battling over how to deal with troopers found in violation of the state police’s ban on visible tattoos, according to two sources familiar with the matter.  The administration, citing state police policy, has pushed for the troopers to have any such tattoos removed, a process that may involve costly and lengthy treatments, according to the sources, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.  The union is advocating for a less stringent resolution, although what those options include are unclear.  Asked for comment last week, state police officials would not say what prompted the staff-wide inspection, nor how many troopers were found to have violated the ban.  Union head Joe Kovel also declined to discuss the matter.  From Vermont to Arizona, state police and other agencies have grappled with how much body ink is acceptable, and whether banning it is wise.  “The trend right now very clearly is to relax tattoo regulations,” said Will Aitchison, a Portland, Ore.-based expert on public safety and labor employment law issues.  “There is an obvious reason for it — we can’t recruit enough people to be police in this country.”  Mr. Aitchison, a lawyer who has represented dozens of police and firefighter unions, added: “We are in the middle of a hiring crisis in law enforcement that we haven’t seen in our lifetime.”  Indeed, some departments are toying with relaxing their bans, seen as impediments to recruiting good people.  Others require only that tattoos be covered up, or ban offensive images, words or “excessive” ink.  State police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said last week that his agency’s policy on personal appearance prohibits tattoos, body art, piercings or any branding visible to the public when troopers are in their summer uniform.  That means markings on the face, neck, hands, forearms and portions of the upper arms.  “The tattoo cannot be visible in the summer uniform shirt, which is a basic, short-sleeved shirt,” Mr. Tarkowski said.  “If a tattoo extends beyond that, a cadet would have to have it removed at their expense.”  The policy also applies to applicants and cadets at the State Police Academy. They get at least three months to have tattoos or piercings removed, and must adhere to the policy as long as they remain troopers.  The state police even have a committee specifically assigned to assess body-art requests from active troopers, who must submit plans for a tattoo’s design, size, color and placement.  But agency officials say the committee doesn’t appear to have been used extensively, if at all.  Mr. Tarkowski could not say what punishment active troopers face if they are caught violating the tattoo ban, or whether Mr. Blocker supports strict enforcement of the policy.  Andrew Matthews, who chairs the National Troopers Coalition, which he said represents 45,000 troopers in 42 states, said there are ways to deal with active troopers who have violated the ban that do not involve forcing them to have their tattoos removed.  Some law enforcement departments, for instance, suspend them and then require them to wear long-sleeved shirts year-round or cover their body ink with makeup or an Ace bandage.  “I think having it removed by laser is a little barbaric,” Mr. Matthews said.  “I’ve seen it with one of my members, and it was a painful process. … There can be a middle ground.”  That’s the issue at the heart of the ongoing talks between Mr. Blocker’s administration and troopers’ association.  Some at the agency cite the policy as a deterrent to potential recruits — including ex-military members — as the state police acknowledges struggles to attract and retain qualified applicants amid a wave of expected retirements in the next few years. 

1/31/17

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