NOPD postpones criticized proposed ban on visible tattoos

New Orleans police officers and their top brass reached an eleventh-hour deal Wednesday on a proposed ban on visible tattoos, which will push back the date and slightly relax the new policy forbidding conspicuous ink.

The policy change had been slated to take effect Thursday, and would have forced every officer to cover every tattoo not already covered by clothing — long-sleeved shirts would be required for officers with arm tattoos; Band-Aids or makeup would be required to hide those on necks or hands.

But NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas in last-minute negotiations with police associations agreed to postpone the effective date until Oct. 6, and work with the rank and file to come up with summer-weather alternatives to the department’s long-sleeve polyester uniform shirts.

The policy, long in the making, became controversial only recently, when word began to spread about the impending changes. At least a quarter of the police force is estimated to have visible tattoos, and would be required to add extra layers to their already 40-plus-pound gear in 100-degree weather.

The police department said the ban is intended to create a more professional and uniform appearance.

But many officers on the streets thought it an unnecessary burden to fix an imaginary problem in a department besieged by low morale, poor retention and a bad reputation.

“I think the administration has a lot more important things to worry about than tattoos,” said one officer with extensive arm tattoos, who asked that his name be withheld because officers are forbidden from talking to the press. “It’s old-fashioned thinking, and old-fashioned policing hasn’t been working in the city.”

Some of those problems, officers and their associations complained, could actually be exacerbated by the tattoo ban. On a police force that, on average, loses one officer every three days, recruiting and retention efforts should be paramount, they argue.

The city recently revived a long-dead residency requirement that mandates that all new officers live in the city. The police associations anticipate that alone will chase off good applicants, and an all-out ban on visible tattoos will make the problem worse.

“It feels like City Hall is doing everything they can do to keep people from applying to be New Orleans Police officers at a time when we need them the most,” said Raymond Burkart III, a spokesman for the New Orleans Fraternal Order of Police. “The officers are crying out for more manpower and more training. And what they’re being told is, ‘We don’t like the way you look.’”

While the department says the ban would bring the force in line with other cities moving in similar directions, the associations suggest it would take it back decades in thinking: A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 36 percent of young people have tattoos, Burkart pointed out. They are particularly popular among police departments’ most desired applicants, such as former military personnel.

The ban was supposed to go into effect Thursday.

Twice earlier this year, drafts of the policy were sent to the presidents of the city’s three police associations: the Fraternal Order of Police, the Police Association of New Orleans and the Black Organization of Police, said Remi Braden, spokeswoman for the police department.

All was quiet until recently.

The associations never notified their members, nor responded to the superintendent to complain about the proposed shift in policy, Braden said.

An officer said he and his colleagues on the force are equally irritated with their associations for not informing them of the policy as they are with the brass for trying to implement it in the first place.

“We serve them and if we missed the ball, then they have a right to be annoyed,” Burkart said. “At the same time, we haven’t given up the fight. We’re not giving up the fight.”

But Burkart was incredulous that Braden blamed the associations for not passing word along to the officers. The proposed policies were drafts, he said. And they were asked not to send them along to the rank and file.

Eric Hessler, attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans, said the draft was one paragraph of a four-page document of proposals. It simply fell through the cracks.

Capt. Michael Glasser, president of PANO, added that it is not the associations’ responsibility to evaluate whether a rule is good or bad for the department — the department itself should be doing that. It’s difficult, he said, to gauge a policy’s potential impact.

Braden said the communication kerfuffle led the chief to re-evaluate how he communicates with the officers on the streets: From now on, the chief will send every proposed change directly to each officer, with an invitation to respond with concerns.

When the associations caught the proposal in July, they began making an issue of it with the superintendent. The Fraternal Order of Police sent a counterproposal to the chief. Burkart would not say its exact concessions, but suggested the association would not be opposed to requirements that offensive tattoos are covered.

The Police Association of New Orleans arranged to meet with the chief Wednesday morning, and the chief agreed to postpone the implementation of the rule until it could be further negotiated.

Both organizations said they were grateful for the grace period.

The Black Organization of Police is also against the tattoo ban, though its leaders have not formally noted its opposition to the brass, said Capt. Simon Hargrove, head of the group.

But it will likely become a rule in a form very similar to the one now, with some concessions for officers’ comfort, Hessler said.

“I think it’s bad for the city,” Glasser said. “It accomplishes nothing. I don’t know if it makes for a more professional appearance, but it doesn’t make for more professional policing.”