Police agencies loosen tattoo policy in effort to recruit, retain officers

In the past three years, area law enforcement agencies debated allowing officers to show their tattoos while on duty to change with the times and allow for a bigger pool of good potential employees

And many have made the change. Most recently, the Middletown Division of Police permitted officers’ ink to be visible while on duty.

The end of July, Middletown Police Chief David Birk lifted the department’s long standing policy, and officers are now proudly displaying tattoos.

“I am old school. No beards, no tattoos, but a lot of the departments in Butler County and the area were changing and really it is a cultural change with the younger officers. It is just more accepted now,” Birk said.

The chief said he was hesitant at first, “but to be honest I have not heard one complaint and a lot of the officers are telling me it helps with communication. It’s a conversation starter.”

There are guidelines, including the tats cannot be offensive, or on the hands or neck.

Previously, officers were wearing long sleeves year round or a bandage or specialty sleeves to cover up tattoos. It was quite an effort for some and hot in the summer.

“The culture is different than 20 years ago. A lot of this generation express themselves differently than we did. I just thought it was time for change and it opens up recruiting,” Birk said. He noted a young officer who is being promoted from corrections to patrol was hesitant because she wanted to be able to show her tattoos while she worked.

Birk said he does not have a tattoo and will never get one - a fear of needles made sure of that.

The Butler County Sheriff’s Office changed its policy that required deputies to wear sleeves, makeup or long shirts to cover visible arm tattoos about three years ago. The department does not allow neck, face or hand tattoos and additional tattoos acquired after hiring must be approved. Tattoos on the leg are covered by the uniform.

“The sleeves and makeup were problematic,” said Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer in 2019. “The sleeves for cover-up really didn’t look professional and were hot in the summer.”

Warren County Sheriff’s deputies are also permitted to show some small tattoos while on duty, pending approval of Sheriff Larry Sims. That policy changed in 2019.

“We used to not allow them at all,” said Warren County Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Johnson. “We do allow small ones, but if you get one large tattoo covering most of your arm, you are probably going to have to wear long sleeves.”

“It is a different workforce that I signed on to 25 years ago. We have many people here, especially from the military, that their whole body is a canvas, but you would never know it because not any of it is visible,” Johnson said.

The Oxford and West Chester police departments require visible tattoos to be covered by officers while on duty.

“The current only approved method (for covering tattoos) is long sleeves for the arms and long pants for the legs,” said West Chester Police Chief Joel Herzog. “There are no plans for changing the policy.”

In August 2021, the Fairfield Police modified its tattoo policy, according to Chief Steve Maynard.

Currently the policy reads, “sworn employees are permitted to have visible tattoos, providing that the tattoos are only visible on the arm(s) and the leg(s) while wearing any authorized FPD uniform and do not violate any of the content restrictions.”

Franklin, Fairfield Twp. and Hamilton have modified policies in recent years permitting visible tattoos.

Fairfield Twp. police Chief Bob Chabali said, “It is a new generation. They like their tattoos. And it becomes a hiring, recruitment and retention thing. It is important to this generation and so we changed the policy to reflect that.”

In Franklin, officers have been permitted to show their ink “for quite some time,” said Chief Adam Colon. “But no hand, neck or face tattoos. And obviously the can’t be offensive, discriminatory or inappropriate in nature.”

Hamilton Police also changed its policy last summer — visible tattoos are permitted with guidelines similar to those in other departments in the region.

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