Johnson City commissioners believe revisions to the police department’s tattoo policy are still too restrictive and don’t go far enough to eliminate a barrier to recruiting new officers.
“I was little disheartened to see that what we received was similar if not the same that we saw originally proposed,” Commissioner John Hunter said during a meeting Monday. “I don’t know that it really meets that need in order to recruit and retain.”
The new policy, which staff shared with commissioners as a draft last Wednesday, requires officers to conceal tattoos, body art or intentional brandings while on duty.
Deputy Police Chief Debbie Botelho said the policy recently went into effect as a general order.
According to the draft shared with commissioners, department members would need to wear a long-sleeve uniform year-round if tattoos are visible in any short-sleeved uniform. With the exception of a wedding band tattoo on the finger of one hand, tattoos would not be allowed on the face, neck, hands or head.
The new policy applies equally to all officers, and no one will receive grandfathered status.
Under the past policy, officers with tattoos that existed before 2010 were exempt if the art was inoffensive. The policy also prohibited new officers from having a tattoo on their arms or legs that would be visible in any department-issued uniform or clothing.
Changes to the policy are an internal decision by staff, but commissioners have been providing input on the process.
Vice Mayor Joe Wise said commissioners raised concerns about the department’s tattoo policy for years, noting that it’s one factor in the diminished number of applicants the city sees for officer positions.
As of September, the Johnson City Police Department was down about 16 officers.
Instead of addressing the problem, Wise said the revised policy substitutes in a new issue.
The city’s prior tattoo policy has been discouraging recruitment of entry-level employees, sending potential police officers with tattoos to Kingsport and Bristol.
Although they would have to remain covered on-duty, the revised policy will allow new recruits with visible tattoos on their arms and legs to apply, Wise said, but the city would now be eliminating the grandfathered status for long-term employees who had tattoos before 2010.
That could unintentionally encourage those officers to search for jobs elsewhere, he said.
“You know what I’d do if I was 35 years old and all of a sudden I had to wear long sleeves to patrol the Fourth of July?” Wise said. “I’d start looking for jobs at the DEA, TBI and Homeland Security.”
Looking at rules adopted by other law enforcement agencies, Wise said the revisions still make the policy among the most restrictive in the region.
“It hasn’t addressed anything,” Wise said. “It’s just switched the complaint.”
The Bristol Police Department in Tennessee requires long-sleeves year round, and the Kingsport Police Department requires that tattoos not be visible on any body part while in uniform.
Meanwhile, several departments in the region are more relaxed with their rules. The Carter County Sheriff’s Department, the Elizabethton Police Department, the Knoxville Police Department and the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office allow visible tattoos that are not deemed offensive.
“I don’t think we need to be in the one percentile that’s most permissive, but I also think we don’t need to be in the 90th percentile that’s most restrictive, either” Wise said.
Today, with roughly 47% of millennials having at least one tattoo, Wise said employers can’t needlessly disqualify potential candidates.
Looking at other professions, Commissioner Larry Calhoun said tattoo rules in hospital settings, which he noted used to be incredibly restrictive, have relaxed over the years.
“Now, I’m pretty much guaranteeing you that if Ballad (Health) had a nurse with a tattoo that could go work in the COVID unit, they’d hire them,” he said.
At ETSU’s Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy, Calhoun said officials had to make a choice: Did they want students to meet specific expectations about appearance, or did they want to recruit the right people to care for the general public?
“I think we’re almost to that level where we’ve got to worry about having the right people to care for the general public and sort of backing off on what we feel is appropriate,” he said.
Police Chief Karl Turner said he was busy most of the day on Tuesday and hadn’t had a chance to review comments from the commission or have an in-depth conversation with City Manager Pete Peterson about the topic.
He said he wouldn’t be able to make a statement about next steps until he talked to Peterson.