Love them or hate them, you must realize that tattoos have become part of mainstream American culture.
They are no longer just a choice of military personnel and social outliers, the latter being a long-outdated stereotype. If the surveys we’ve seen are right, as much as 40% of the U.S. adult population now has at least one tattoo. Our anecdotal observations tell us that’s probably true.
The trend puts employers in a quandary, especially those whose personnel interact with the public. One person’s body art may ring another’s alarm bell. Despite the prevalence, many people still associate tattoos with negative behavior and outside the parameters of acceptable appearance. A visible tattoo can still put a good-paying job out of reach.
But as society’s norms evolve, so must policies and regulations.
At least some members of the Johnson City Commission recognize that. That’s why they have asked the city’s Police Department to review its policies regarding visible tattoos. The city has trouble recruiting candidates and retaining officers — the ranks had 16 vacancies as of September. Vice Mayor Joe Wise and others say the tattoo restrictions are partially to blame. The old policy said officers with tattoos that existed before 2010 were exempt if the art was “inoffensive.” The policy also prohibited new officers from having any tattoo on their arms or legs that would be visible in any department-issued uniform or clothing.
As Staff Writer David Floyd reported in Wednesday’s edition, commissioners were not satisfied with the JCPD’s first draft of a new policy, finding it still too restrictive. A tattooed officer would have 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. It also removes the allowance for officers who had tattoos prior to 2010.
Some neighboring cities have similar policies, while others allow visible tattoos as long as they are inoffensive.
We agree with Wise that Johnson City should neither be among the most permissive nor the most restrictive. As Commissioner Larry Calhoun noted, other area employers have adapted, seeing the greater concerns at hand.
If a person is otherwise suited for the job, why should an outmoded norm be the determining factor? How many former military personnel and other qualified applicants would walk away?
Face, head and throat tattoos should remain outside the bounds of professional appearance — that’s still gang territory in our view — but the city should allow officers to wear shorts and short-sleeve shirts in warm weather even if inoffensive tattoos are on their arms, wrists, calves and ankles. We’ve even seen professionals with tasteful tattoos on the back of the neck at the hairline.
Of course, taste remains in the eye of the beholder, presenting a somewhat slippery slope for supervisors. Just what constitutes an “offensive” tattoo?
So the city should be as specific in that standard as possible. Such no-nos as profanity, nudity, depictions of violence, skulls, known gang signs, hate messages, political statements and drug culture symbols should be on that list.
We need cops. We need good cops — with or without visible tattoos.