It would seem that few institutions have a public face more diametrically opposed to tattoo culture than the police. While officers of the law are responsible for upholding peace, the association between tattoos and seedy or at least rebellious facets of society seems to clash almost too well. Of course, this isn't to say that police are anti-tattoo or condemn the practice full stop. Many officers themselves are inked, and police can and have used tattoos to assist with solving crimes or tracking dangerous individuals. From stringent tattoo policies to officers turning to tattooing for identification purposes, what's certain is that the relationship between police and tattoos is as confusing as it is tenuous.
More often than not, tattoos find themselves at the top of many police departments' most-wanted lists, with precincts all over the U.S. adopting variations on visible tattoo bans. The most recent example comes from the San Antonio Police Department. According to The Associated Press, the department announced that beginning this month, no visible tattoos will be permitted as part of the uniform. Far from the first Texan precinct to ban tattoos, San Antonio now joins Houston and Dallas as other in-state departments that have banned visibly inked officers. As the source reported, it's estimated that around 200 officers of the district's 2,300 currently have tattoos that would be affected by this policy. This comes on the heels of an initiative started last year in which candidates to the police academy with visible tattoos were not accepted.
There is some leeway, however, between departments regarding the scope of these policies. For example, the SAPD permits officers with tattooed arms to wear long sleeves, outright banning only that ink which adorns hands and faces. However, the New York State Police department takes a much firmer stance. According to the NYPD's website, tattoos may not be visible with short sleeves worn. Additionally, location isn't the only determining factor. Any tattoos that display messages or symbols deemed to be inconsistent with department values will be banned.
Turning to tattoos for help
Of course, just because police departments tend to be unwelcoming to tattoos within their walls doesn't mean they don't make use of the practice. Many offenders have learned the hard way the value of tattoo removal when criminal investigations are involved. A recent report from Leigh Valley, Pennsylvania, noted that police were able to positively identify a burglary suspect largely due to his prominent facial tattoo. Other notable instances of tattoo utility for police involve gang crimes, as it's a popular tradition among many street gangs to display their organizational allegiance, and sometimes even rank, through tattoos.
Police have used tattoos to help identify victims and those hurt by crime as well. As The Times of India reported, the body of an unidentified man was found in the woods of the Vellore district of India on Jan. 1. It wasn't until investigators inspected unique tattoos found on the man's hand and chest that the previously uncrackable case broke. By matching the name inked onto the man against the name of those who had filed missing person reports around the time the body was discovered, police were successful in tracking down the man's wife and – thanks to her – identifying the previously unknown victim.
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