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HPD weighs tattoo cover-up


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POSTED: Monday, January 26, 2009

The long arm of the law might no longer be inked up, as the Honolulu Police Department works on a "no-show" policy for tattoos.

Police officials are writing up a draft policy on the display of tattoos on uniformed officers. Maj. Frank Fujii declined to discuss specifics of the policy since it has not been finalized.

Fujii said it will mirror many similar policies in place in the military and at mainland law enforcement agencies.

"It is to maintain a professional image of the officers," Fujii said. "I think the community expects officers to reflect a higher level of geniality. They expect and they deserve."

Restrictive tattoo policies for various military and law enforcement agencies have been implemented in recent years, from the Marine Corps all the way down to county sheriff departments.

In July the Des Moines Police Department in Iowa implemented its policy, prohibiting inked-up hires and grandfathering those who already have them and requiring the officers to cover up.

"There's sort of a stigma we discovered, associated with the criminal element," said Des Moines police spokesman Sgt. Vincent Valdez. "We will get comments from the public to the effect, 'Wow, that officer sure had a lot of tattoos.'"

Valdez said for the past few months, the tattoo policy had no negative impact on recruitment.

The Honolulu Police Department has had problems in the past in recruiting, but for the first time in a decade is fully staffed. Fujii said the department is not worried about the policy affecting recruitment.

"The policy itself would be reasonable enough to have officers cover most tattoos they may have," Fujii said. "If someone wants to be a police officer bad enough, they'll do what they need to do to be in compliance."

The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers is willing to work with the department on the policy, said Stan Aquino, chairman of the union's Honolulu chapter. Aquino said the policy would not prohibit tattoos, just require them to be covered up.

However, the union is worried that officers might need to pick up the tab on long-sleeved shirts. Also, there is the tropical heat.

"It's going to be hard for some of the officers to be wearing long-sleeved shirts," Aquino said. "We're going to sit down with them to see if we can negotiate more options."

There has been little luck in challenging tattoo restrictions within police departments. The union representing Los Angeles police officers took the matter to arbitration and lost.

And in 2005 a Connecticut federal judge rejected arguments from five Hartford police officers that a tattoo policy violated their First Amendment rights.

There are other regulations in place at police departments that monitor dress code and length of hair. Judge Christopher Droney deemed that tattoo policies are "part of a broad framework which regulates numerous other aspects of an officer's appearance," according to the decision.

Aquino said the union also understands that it is the department's prerogative to mandate appearance and dress.

"I learned about (tattoo policies) two years ago, and I knew it was inevitable it was going to reach Hawaii," Aquino said. "We have a common understanding on the need to be professional-looking."