NOPD loosens tattoo restrictions for officers

Officers allowed to show limited ink

Some inked New Orleans police officers now will be able to dress a bit more casually, thanks to a revised department rule about tattoos.

Under a contentious policy that went into effect in November, officers with tattoos on their arms were forced to wear long-sleeved uniform shirts or other coverings to hide the ink.

The new policy, which Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas announced Thursday, allows officers to wear short-sleeve shirts even if a tattoo on the upper arm is visible below the shirt sleeve.

A single visible tattoo no bigger than 2.5 by 4.5 inches will be allowed on each forearm.

“The new policy ... will make policing in a hot climate a little more bearable,” said Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which opposed the former rule.

Larger tattoos still will be banned, as will tattoos on the head, face and neck, and those determined to be vulgar, offensive or political in nature.

“While this is not a complete removal of the tattoo policy, it should allow many officers ... to return to the normal short-sleeved NOPD shirts for the remainder of the summer and beyond,” the FOP wrote in its newsletter.

The policy quickly became a source of controversy between officers and department brass when it was announced last year. Many officers complained about having to wear long-sleeve polyester uniform shirts during the city’s often brutally hot summers.

At least a quarter of the NOPD is estimated to have visible tattoos. The tattoo rule forced those who do to add extra layers to their already 40-plus-pound gear in 100-degree weather, critics said.

The Police Department said the ban was intended to create a more professional and uniform appearance, but the critics described it as an unnecessary imposition on rank-and-file officers in a department already besieged by low morale and high attrition.

Some of those problems, the police unions said, could 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 argued, while an all-out ban on visible tattoos would drive away some officers or potential recruits.

Livaccari said he hopes that easing up on the policy will lead to some new applications and boost officers’ morale, even if only a little.

“We’re hoping this has a positive impact not only on recruiting but also retention,” he said. “At the very least, it’s a step in the right direction.”

The FOP considers the new policy far from perfect but better than the alternative, Livaccari added.

“I think that, ideally, we would’ve liked to have seen the no-visible-tattoo policy simply rescinded,” he said. “As we engaged in ongoing discussions (with the department administration), it seemed that was going to be a difficult thing to achieve, so we figured this is the best possible outcome.

“There’s going to be some people it helps and some it doesn’t make a hill of beans for,” he said of the new rule.

While the department says the ban would have brought the force in line with other cities adopting similar rules, the police associations charged it would take the NOPD back decades in thinking.

A 2008 Pew Research Center study found that 36 percent of young people have tattoos. They are particularly popular among police departments’ most desired applicants, such as former military personnel.

During negotiations between the FOP and NOPD, the union said it would not be opposed to requiring that offensive tattoos be covered. In a prepared statement, Serpas thanked the FOP for its collaboration on the issue.

Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.