A patrol officer gets a call that a prowler is cutting through backyards in a neighborhood. He arrives and takes a look. The elderly lady who made the 9-1-1 call sees him in her yard and calls dispatch again, saying, “There is a man impersonating a police officer in my yard!” When the operator asks her what she means, she says, “He is covered in tattoos!” And she is correct. The officer is fully sleeved with tattoos and wearing a short-sleeved uniform shirt on this particular hot summer evening.
She is so insistent that the man with the tattoos can’t be a real cop that the arriving cover officer has to escort his partner to her door and introduce him, explaining that he is a real police officer, while she eyes him suspiciously. The Chief hears this story and with a stroke of his pen, a new policy comes down: “If you have visible tattoos, you will wear long-sleeved uniform shirts in patrol or long-sleeved dress shirts in investigations.”
Certainly the elderly lady has a perception, based on her generation, that cops don’t have tattoo sleeves. And certainly the Chief has the right to make this policy. It is his show and his dough. Enforcing this policy evenly can be another story. “Everybody has tattoos these days,” say a lot of young officers and deputies. But just because everyone does it, has it, or says it, doesn’t mean it’s not subject to discipline for violating the policy.
Think about some of the policies you have to enforce that address issues that seem petty to the rank and file, but may be very important to your Chief and the public’s perception about your agency. You already know some employees like to push the boundaries of certain policies they disagree with, like smoking in police vehicles. The majority of your officers abide by it, but some officers will flaunt the policy and do what they want. When you ping them on it, they complain about “fairness, freedoms, and their civil rights.”
Consider facial hair polices. Most agencies say, “no goatees, no footlong sideburns, no beards (unless you’re working undercover), and no mustaches that droop below the lower lip. Most cops comply, but some come in looking like extras in a Chinese karate movie, with Fu Manchus down to their kneecaps.
Most departments have a policy against male officers wearing earrings (again, unless you are working undercover) or female officers wearing huge earrings that can create an officer safety issue (some of their hoops are bigger than their handcuffs). Is it a violation of the officer’s personal freedoms or lifestyle choices, or simply a matter of conforming to public perceptions of what professional law enforcement officers should look like at work?
And what about dress codes in the office? Some agencies have “jeans on Friday” or “casual dress day” polices. Employees can abuse this too, showing up in outfits that are best for the beach. Most male supervisors don’t enjoy having to tell a young and attractive female employee that she is dressing like a hoochie momma, so they either let it slide or get a female supervisor to talk to her.
It can be no fun to be a boss and have to tighten up on employees for things they think are “no big deal,” like making lots of personal phone calls on duty, using department cell phones for personal business, not paying parking tickets or tolls while working in undercover cars, or always showing up a few minutes past the start of briefing or lineup.
If things feel loose to you, maybe it is time to go back to the dictionary definition of “uniform” (let’s all look the same: professional, well-groomed, and serious about our business) and the definition of “policy” (we all follow these, or else there are consequences). Enforcing the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law should start in our own backyards.
Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His books include Contact & Cover, Streetwork, Surviving Street Patrol, and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops. He can be reached at email@example.com.