San Jose police officers with an affinity for tattoos may end up sweating a little more in the summer from now on as the San Jose Police Department recently adopted a policy that prohibits beat officers from displaying tattoos while on duty.

In a nutshell, officers with tattoos will either have to wear long-sleeved shirts year-round to cover up or have them removed.

Police Officer with Tattoos

(A police officer sporting a sleeve tattoo)

Responding to unhappy officers, Police Chief Rob Davis last week agreed to exempt cops with tattoos the chief decides are not offensive to the public. The problem is, how can a chief determine which tattoos are and are not offensive to the public?

“It’s absolutely one of the big issues,” said Bobby Lopez, president of the 1,360-member San Jose Police Officers Association. “It’s been coming for a while, only because the next generation always goes over the top.”

Some law enforcement agencies are seeing younger officers sporting “sleeves,” which can be one large tattoo or a collection of smaller tattoos that usually covers the entire arm, from shoulder to wrist. In today’s society, tattoos are no longer a taboo subject and 1 in 4 American’s sport some form of bodyart.

The issue started to pick up steam last year, when five police officers from Hartford, Conn., lost a lawsuit claiming tattoo bans violate their First Amendment rights. A lower-court judge dismissed the lawsuit and a federal appeals court ruled that policies banning officers from displaying tattoos don’t violate the Constitution.

“Nobody is restricting their rights of how to express themselves on their own time,” Chief Davis said. “When working for the San Jose Police Department, we have to regulate appearance. My belief is that the community expects that of us.”

Lopez agrees that officers must maintain a certain level of professionalism, but would like to see more wiggle room in the policy. “We are professionals, and we understand that,” Union representative Lopez said. “Not all tattoos would we consider offensive, and sometimes they are a little patriotic.

“Let’s always remember the big old tattoo of ‘mom,’ ” Lopez said. “Are we going to cover up mother?”