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Tattooed Arm of the Law Is Raising Image Questions

August 21, 2005|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Michael Hartley got his first tattoo when he turned 18 and has been hooked on body ink ever since. He now has eight tattoos, including a shamrock on his right triceps and tropical flowers and bamboo shoots that wind down his left forearm.

He has tattoos on each arm, his left leg, back and side. In a nation in which tattoos have become increasingly popular -- a 2003 survey found one in six U.S. adults was inked -- Hartley's work would hardly raise an eyebrow.

Except he's a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy.

A growing number of police chiefs and sheriffs across the country, including Hartley's boss, Lee Baca, say tattoos present a negative image to the public. And they're taking steps to ban the display of tattoos by uniformed officers.

They say tattoos blur the line between police officers and criminals, in part because tattoos are common among gang members and prison inmates. In 2003, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton ordered his more than 9,000 officers to cover their tattoos while on duty. San Diego police followed suit last year, and Houston's police chief imposed a ban this year.

Law enforcement rank and file, however, say their older supervisors are out of touch with a younger generation for whom tattoos represent self-expression and an edginess that is common in their culture -- not gangs and criminality. Once primarily associated with those in the military and outlaw groups like motorcycle gangs, tattooing has gone mainstream.

Hartley, for one, said he is proud of his ink. The shamrock is a symbol of his Irish heritage, he said, and he plans to get more tattoos.

But Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies have a dark history regarding tattooing. In the early 1990s, some deputies at the Lynwood station who called themselves the Vikings were found to have engaged in racially motivated abuse on the streets. Many of them had tattoos similar to the logo of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.

The Los Angeles Police Department had its own tattoo problems. Several officers in the Rampart Division's notorious CRASH anti-gang unit were inked with an insignia that some say symbolized their dubious brand of policing: a grinning skull with demonic eyes.

Baca said he is considering a policy that would force deputies to cover their tattoos with long-sleeved uniforms or bandages while on duty. His idea comes at a time of increasing popularity for tattooing. Even one of Baca's top aides, Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka, is tattooed. He has a Viking tattoo on his leg, a remnant from his days at the Lynwood station. He said the Vikings was a nickname for deputies assigned to the station and did not represent anything sinister.

Still, Tanaka, who also serves as mayor of Gardena, said he regrets getting the tattoo.

"Somewhere down the line, that place got a bad reputation. If I knew then what I know today, that that name and symbol would have become something evil, I certainly would not have gotten it," Tanaka said.

Merrick Bobb, an advisor to law enforcement agencies around the country, said he believes Baca's policy would be a positive step.

"There's somewhat of a sorry history in the Sheriff's Department going back to the early '90s of deputies getting tattoos and engaging in gang-like behavior," said Bobb, who has a contract to monitor the department. "The Sheriff's Department has consistently discouraged deputies from getting themselves tattooed, although it has not been enforced as an absolute ban. I think the sheriff is very much moving in the right direction."

Baca said he's concerned that tattoos give a bad first impression to the public. His staff is drafting a policy that would be discussed with the deputies' union before it would be enforced.

"I don't want anyone to be identified with outlaw-type behavior, especially those that are enforcing the law," Baca said. "I'm here as a father figure to say to those I respect the most, 'If God wanted you to have a tattoo, you'd be born with one.' "

Sheriff's officials say more than 300 deputies could be affected by the policy. Sheriff's Chief Bill McSweeney said he believes the highest concentration of tattooed deputies is among those working the jails.

"We have grown used to seeing inmates with extensive tattooing. It's disturbing to me that we are now seeing some deputies with an equal amount of visible tattoos. I'm not sure that the public knows what to make of it," McSweeney said.

At Johnny Casino Tattoo Parlor in Pico Rivera, one deputy brought in an artistic inmate's tribute to those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The sketch depicted the World Trade Center towers before the disaster and bore the words "All gave, some gave all."

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