Police taking tattoo ban to arbitration

A long dispute between the police chief and the union goes to the federal level

January 13, 2008|By JORGE VALENCIA | JORGE VALENCIA,Special to The Sun

The Anne Arundel County police officers union is taking its challenge of a ban on visible tattoos to a federal arbitrator after months of disagreement with the department's administration.

In hopes of negotiating a new policy, officials with the Fraternal Order of Police have met three times with the chief, Col. James E. Teare Sr., since he began requiring officers to cover up their body art.

The union president said Teare's only concession was to spare tattooed officers in long-sleeve uniforms from wearing ties.

Cpl. O'Brien Atkinson said the chief told union officials that the department was simply clarifying a policy on grooming and appearance.

"If there's an officer that has a tattoo that is offensive or indecent, the department should take action," Atkinson said. "But to make a blanket policy which affects our narcotics departments and other officers doesn't make sense. I mean, we have officers who have Tigger from Winnie the Pooh."

At question is whether the department is required to establish a specific policy on tattoos in its force or whether it can regulate them under existing rules.

"What we are saying is that there is an obligation to negotiate over working conditions, and this is clearly a working condition," Atkinson said.

Teare said he had no comment before litigation in the case.

County Executive John R. Leopold, who has not taken a public stance on the issue, also declined to comment.

Several jurisdictions in Maryland have imposed similar bans, as have at least a dozen departments nationwide in states including California, Oklahoma and Connecticut.

In Connecticut, the Supreme Court upheld a ban that was challenged by a group that said it infringed on the First Amendment right of freedom of expression. In other cases, departments cracked down on displays of tattoos after complaints that some were offensive.

Larry Harmel, executive director of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said some chiefs "look at it and in some cases see the tattoos are very inappropriate and they don't feel it presents a professional image."

"Just like there are hair restrictions and they have a uniform, they want you to project professionalism," he said. "Maybe they're taking issue with it now because this is the 21st century and tattoos now are becoming more prevalent."

According to a recent study from Ohio University and Scripps Howard News Service, about 30 percent of Americans ages 25 to 34 have tattoos.

In the county Police Department, which has 686 sworn officers, the new policy affects at least 20 officers and probably many more civilian personnel, Atkinson said.

Teare distributed a memo June 22 saying that department personnel would be required to cover any visible tattoos with long-sleeved uniforms or remove the tattoos.

Tattooed officers quickly complained to the union because they had to wear long-sleeved winter uniforms in the summer heat. The union filed a grievance within the week.

The federal arbitrator will mediate a hearing in February or March. The decision would be binding.

Atkinson estimated that the county might spend "in the tens of thousands of dollars" of taxpayer money during the mediation. The union would spend about the same amount, he said.

"We're putting everything we can behind this," he said.

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