Should a tattoo of a Japanese koi fish or a Chinese character disqualify a would-be state trooper from patrolling Vermont’s highways? Right now it could. Since 2007, the Vermont State Police has banned visible tattoos on troopers.
“We were seeing people enter our [recruitment] process where they had sleeves of tattoos down their arms, or tattoos on the back of their neck or maybe even on their face,” explains Capt. Dave Notte, the VSP’s current staff operations officer. “Appearance is very, very important to us, because we don’t want our appearance to jeopardize the public’s trust and confidence in us. It just didn’t look professional.”
But as tattoos have become more mainstream, the state police force is looking to revise that policy, citing an anticipated shortage of troopers and the difficulty of recruiting new talent. There’s concern that current policies aren’t welcoming of war veterans, many of whom returned with tattoos memorializing their time in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the next five years, the state police will need to hire 120 new troopers to fill vacancies anticipated from retirements and regular turnover. That’s more than a third of VSP’s authorized force of 327.
“We feel we’re losing quality candidates” because of the tattoo policy, says Notte. At least one would-be trooper withdrew his application from the VSP rather than remove his tattoo, a costly procedure that isn’t always successful, Notte says.
The VSP wants to revise its policy before January, when its new class of recruits starts at the police academy. Notte can’t yet say which tattoo designs — or spots on the body — would be acceptable for state troopers. But he says the VSP plans to review the body-art policies in various branches of the military and at police departments around the country.
The Army forbids any tattoos that are extremist, racist or sexist, as well as ink on the face, head or neck above the collar; the Virginia State Police adds the ears, nose, eyebrows and tongue to that list of prohibited places. In Great Falls, Montana, tattoos that are obscene, sexually suggestive, drug related or “political in nature” keep you off the force.
The Palm Beach County sheriff’s office limits officers to one tattoo on each arm that can be no bigger than 3 inches by 3 inches.
Vermont largest police departments, by contrast, have few if any rules about police tattoos and report no problems stemming from inked officers. Rutland City Police Capt. Scott Tucker estimates 10 percent of the force has tattoos.
“We’re very open-minded about it,” says Tucker, a 33-year veteran. “Certainly we’re more interested in what’s inside the individual’s heart and brain, and how they act in public.”
Burlington Police Department has a handful of officers with visible tattoos — mostly of the yin-yang variety — but no official policy, says Lt. Bruce Bovat, who notes that offensive tattoos, such as a swastika, would not be allowed on the force.
The department does have grooming standards that govern, among other things, mustache length.
Like Tucker, Bovat says he’s largely unconcerned about the image tattooed officers might project to the public.
“You want officers that reflect society, and a lot of good people out there have tattoos,” he says. “I wouldn’t think that a tattoo in itself would have any positive or negative connotations.”
Ivan Hess, a tattoo artist at Vermont Custom Tattoo and Piercing in Burlington, has worked with a number of police officers — including one client on the Rutland police force who commissioned a full-sleeve tattoo with intricate Japanese imagery. Hess doesn’t believe tattooed police officers project a lack of professionalism, commenting, “I mean, what are you projecting with a koi fish?”
Hess says tattoos have become common among professionals, noting that he’s inked up a number of school teachers as well as “a pretty extensively tattooed” member of the upper management team at Gifford Memorial Hospital.
“People figure doctors, lawyers and police officers don’t have tattoos,” says Eric Henshaw, who co-owns Yankee Tattoo on Pearl Street in Burlington. “The stigma and the belief is that they’re coming from an environment and going into a profession that isn’t normally tattooed, but that just isn’t true.”
Henshaw points out that it may be harder for police agencies — or any employer, for that matter — to pass on tattooed employees given just how many Americans are opting to get inked. According to a 2010 poll from Pew Research, 23 percent of Americans have a tattoo, and 38 percent of so-called “Millenials” have at least one. The numbers are even higher at the Winooski Police Department, where Chief Steve McQueen estimates half his officers have at least one tattoo.
For law enforcement agencies, an overly restrictive tattoo policy can add one more hurdle to a recruitment policy that is already tough to pass. Recruits have to successfully complete a written exam from the Vermont Police Academy, similar to an SAT test, as well as a personality test, physical fitness exam, a polygraph test and full background check.
The whole process can take anywhere from four to six months, and departments lose recruits at every step along the way — particularly the polygraph exam, which Notte says includes questions of about criminal behavior and “acts of moral turpitude.”
He declined to elaborate on what activities might constitute moral turpitude. But come January, there’s a good chance sporting a tattoo won’t be among them.
Seven Days intern Meredith White contributed reporting to this story.