Tattooed Arm of the Law Is Raising Image Questions
Michael Hartley got his first tattoo when he turned 18 and has been hooked on body ink ever since. He now has eight tattoos, including a shamrock on his right triceps and tropical flowers and bamboo shoots that wind down his left forearm.
He has tattoos on each arm, his left leg, back and side. In a nation in which tattoos have become increasingly popular -- a 2003 survey found one in six U.S. adults was inked -- Hartley’s work would hardly raise an eyebrow.
Except he’s a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.
A growing number of police chiefs and sheriffs across the country, including Hartley’s boss, Lee Baca, say tattoos present a negative image to the public. And they’re taking steps to ban the display of tattoos by uniformed officers.
They say tattoos blur the line between police officers and criminals, in part because tattoos are common among gang members and prison inmates. In 2003, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton ordered his more than 9,000 officers to cover their tattoos while on duty. San Diego police followed suit last year, and Houston’s police chief imposed a ban this year.
Law enforcement rank and file, however, say their older supervisors are out of touch with a younger generation for whom tattoos represent self-expression and an edginess that is common in their culture -- not gangs and criminality. Once primarily associated with those in the military and outlaw groups like motorcycle gangs, tattooing has gone mainstream.
Hartley, for one, said he is proud of his ink. The shamrock is a symbol of his Irish heritage, he said, and he plans to get more tattoos.
But Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies have a dark history regarding tattooing. In the early 1990s, some deputies at the Lynwood station who called themselves the Vikings were found to have engaged in racially motivated abuse on the streets. Many of them had tattoos similar to the logo of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
The Los Angeles Police Department had its own tattoo problems. Several officers in the Rampart Division’s notorious CRASH anti-gang unit were inked with an insignia that some say symbolized their dubious brand of policing: a grinning skull with demonic eyes.
Baca said he is considering a policy that would force deputies to cover their tattoos with long-sleeved uniforms or bandages while on duty. His idea comes at a time of increasing popularity for tattooing. Even one of Baca’s top aides, Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka, is tattooed. He has a Viking tattoo on his leg, a remnant from his days at the Lynwood station. He said the Vikings was a nickname for deputies assigned to the station and did not represent anything sinister.
Still, Tanaka, who also serves as mayor of Gardena, said he regrets getting the tattoo.
“Somewhere down the line, that place got a bad reputation. If I knew then what I know today, that that name and symbol would have become something evil, I certainly would not have gotten it,” Tanaka said.
Merrick Bobb, an advisor to law enforcement agencies around the country, said he believes Baca’s policy would be a positive step.
“There’s somewhat of a sorry history in the Sheriff’s Department going back to the early ‘90s of deputies getting tattoos and engaging in gang-like behavior,” said Bobb, who has a contract to monitor the department. “The Sheriff’s Department has consistently discouraged deputies from getting themselves tattooed, although it has not been enforced as an absolute ban. I think the sheriff is very much moving in the right direction.”
Baca said he’s concerned that tattoos give a bad first impression to the public. His staff is drafting a policy that would be discussed with the deputies’ union before it would be enforced.
“I don’t want anyone to be identified with outlaw-type behavior, especially those that are enforcing the law,” Baca said. “I’m here as a father figure to say to those I respect the most, ‘If God wanted you to have a tattoo, you’d be born with one.’ ”
Sheriff’s officials say more than 300 deputies could be affected by the policy. Sheriff’s Chief Bill McSweeney said he believes the highest concentration of tattooed deputies is among those working the jails.
“We have grown used to seeing inmates with extensive tattooing. It’s disturbing to me that we are now seeing some deputies with an equal amount of visible tattoos. I’m not sure that the public knows what to make of it,” McSweeney said.
At Johnny Casino Tattoo Parlor in Pico Rivera, one deputy brought in an artistic inmate’s tribute to those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The sketch depicted the World Trade Center towers before the disaster and bore the words “All gave, some gave all.”
The deputy ultimately decided on a different tattoo, but took the sketch home with him, said Casino, the shop owner. “I tattoo a lot of cops,” Casino said. He estimates he’s worked on 20 police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the last eight years. “Drug addicts, I tell them I don’t have my gloves or I can’t do the job. Drunk people, I send them other places. I like working on cops.”
Sheriff’s deputies typically are interested in patriotic tattoos or the name of their station, Casino said. He’s planning to tattoo the leg of a deputy assigned to the Men’s Central Jail who participates in an annual relay race between Baker, Calif., and Las Vegas. The team members all get matching tattoos that include a rattlesnake and the words “Run Hard,” Casino said.
Casino, 39, a veteran tattooist who himself is heavily inked, said he does not understand why law enforcement agencies are concerned about tattooed officers.
“What, all of a sudden they’re going to become thugs because they get tattoos? That’s not right.” Casino said. “It’s just the way they like to express themselves.”
Hartley, assigned to the Men’s Central Jail, said he’s not happy about the proposed policy change, which he said would require him to wear long-sleeved uniforms even in the heat.
“It’s frustrating because you’re faced with the next 25 years working in long sleeves ... just because somebody doesn’t like tattoos,” Hartley said. “Imagine being in Palmdale or Lancaster in August.”
Police officers have had little luck challenging tattoo restrictions. In March, a federal judge in Connecticut rejected arguments from five Hartford officers that forcing them to cover tattoos violated their 1st Amendment rights.
The union representing Los Angeles police took the issue to arbitration after the department imposed a ban on visible tattoos on uniformed officers. The union lost. Now, dozens of LAPD officers wear long-sleeved uniforms to cover their tattoos. The policy was particularly troublesome, union officials said, because of an LAPD policy that requires officers in long sleeves to also wear ties, a requirement they say is extremely uncomfortable in hot weather.
“I just think where they went with this was pretty extreme,” said Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
“If someone has ‘I love Mom’ tattooed on their arm, I don’t see how anyone could find that offensive.”
Baker suggested that a ban on offensive tattoos might have been more reasonable.
Like Baca, Los Angeles police officials were concerned about how the public perceives tattooed officers, said Assistant Chief Sharon Papa. She said the department implemented the policy after numerous complaints about tattooed officers.
“A lot of people in the community associate tattoos with criminal behavior, and they’re intimidated by that,” Papa said. “We’ve had people complain a lot. They say, ‘These officers have as many tattoos as gangsters.’ That may have been an exaggeration, but we don’t want to intimidate the people we serve.”
Roy Burns, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said he would oppose any effort to restrict tattoos on deputies.
“I can see no way the department could justify hiring an individual they know had visible tattoos and then telling them their tattoos are no longer acceptable,” Burns said. “It would be unbearable to place deputy sheriffs in long-sleeve shirts in areas that can reach 110 degrees. This is something we’d take a stand on. We would take it through the legal process.”
So why would police officers get tattoos? For many, it’s a way of bonding. For many years, sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles County have tattooed themselves with the names or nicknames of their stations.
Others, like Deputy Ben Fark, assigned to the Men’s Central Jail, were already tattooed when they were hired. Among Fark’s 12 tattoos is the insignia of his Marine Corps platoon.
“To me, I don’t see them as taboo, as someone who grew up in a different generation,” he said.
Both Fark and Hartley said they would follow whatever policy Baca imposed, even if it meant wearing long-sleeved uniforms in the heat.
“I like tattoos, and I like my job. I’ll do whatever I have to do to keep both,” Hartley said.
Sharlene Hesse-Biber, a sociology professor at Boston College who has studied the increasing popularity of tattooing, said she’s not surprised that officers would get tattoos.
“It’s a form of branding,” she said. “It’s an important sense of identity. It’s a form of group solidarity, a visible commitment.”
Casino, the Pico Rivera artist who did most of Hartley’s tattoos, says there’s another reason officers get inked.
“Why does anybody want a tattoo? It’s because they’re cool,” Casino said.