CHICAGO — The Chicago Police Department has quietly made changes to its uniform policy, requiring that on-duty officers cover up any tattoos and banning them from wearing baseball caps.
The department’s largest union, which represents rank-and-file officers, quickly voiced its opposition, saying the department should have first negotiated the changes before making any announcement. A number of officers also spoke out against the move, saying their tattoos are part of their identities.
After the Tribune broke the story online Monday night, the department issued a brief statement Tuesday saying it took the action, effective Friday, “to promote uniformity and professionalism.”
“Too many uniform variations became available, making Chicago police officers less immediately identifiable to the public,” said police spokeswoman Jennifer Rottner.
The move puts Chicago in line with other big-city police departments like New York and Los Angeles that have implemented similar changes to their uniform policies as body art has become even more common.
“Normally, because all police agencies are quasi-military, there is some standard for the way people look when they are working, and it’s up to the department leaders,” said Tim Baysinger, a retired captain with the Missouri State Highway Patrol who now works for the Virginia-based Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. “It’s been a little bit more common with police departments since tattoos have become more and more popular.”
But the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 said Tuesday it plans to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board over the new directive.
“It remains the lodge’s position that the dress code policy is a mandatory subject of bargaining, especially when it impacts current officers who have visible body tattoos and/or body brandings,” FOP President Dean Angelo wrote to union members in a letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Tribune.
According to the department directive, tattoos and body brandings cannot be visible on officers “while on duty or representing the department, whether in uniform, conservative business attire, or casual dress.”
The hands, face, neck and other areas not covered by clothing must be covered with “matching skin tone adhesive bandage or tattoo cover-up tape,” the directive said.
A police source familiar with the new policy said the changes were prompted by newer officers whose tattoos were “over the top.” Tattoos covering arms and necks, as well as the wearing of baseball caps backward, “had gotten extreme,” the source said.
The source said the department was sympathetic to officers with tattoos commemorating their military service but ultimately decided it was too “difficult to draw a line.”
With the ban on baseball caps, uniformed officers will likely be seen more frequently wearing the traditional police visor cap. Also known as a “round crown” cap, that cap is usually worn by officers on foot patrol along the Magnificent Mile or other high-visibility areas downtown.
In the winter, uniformed officers will have the option of wearing an ear flap hat to replace the knit cap, which also is prohibited under the new policy.
But in interviews with the Tribune, several tattooed officers blasted the new policy, calling it ridiculous.
The officers, who declined to be identified for this story because they’re not authorized to talk to the news media, said they are often complimented for their tattoos by the public while walking the beat or working a case. They believe the tattoos make them more approachable, especially at a time when Superintendent Garry McCarthy is trying to foster better relations between police and the community.
None of the veteran officers could recall a single instance when people appeared offended by their tattoos.
“The general public already looks at police like robots,” said a police supervisor who works on the South Side. “We’re already thought of as not being personable.”
The supervisor has tattoos covering both of his arms. One of them honors his deceased grandparents and another bears the number of the Chicago Fire Department ambulance that transported him to a hospital when he was shot in the line of duty as a young police officer.
“I think the majority of (officers) that got them are not stupid enough to put something hatred-laden on their body,” said the supervisor, who acknowledged that he’s going to have to enforce the new directive on his officers.
One detective whose arms are covered in tattoos believes the department’s uniform regulations should be the least of its worries right now, especially with violent crime on the rise so far this year.
The detective also said the body art doesn’t make a police officer any less professional than one without tattoos.
“Professionalism is geared toward the individual officer and how they treat people,” the detective said.
One beat officer said he was upset that the new policy will force him to cover up arm tattoos that signify his family’s Irish heritage.
“That’s part of who I am,” the officer said. “This has no impact on the way I perform my duties as a Chicago police officer.”