New Hampshire’s largest police department has changed its policy prohibiting visible tattoos.
The move was prompted by an op-ed published by the wife of a Manchester veteran who questioned the policy, saying her husband couldn’t apply because of an army-related tattoo on his forearm.
Nick Willard was sworn in as Manchester police chief last week, and changed the department’s policy.
He joined NHPR's Morning Edition to talk about his decision.
Can you first talk about the rationale behind the old policy?
It’s a policy that we enacted about 18 months ago, close to two years ago. Ultimately, what we crafted was you could no longer get anymore tattoos and we decided we were not going to hire anyone who had visible tattoos and we grandfathered the current officers who had them. We were following the national trend towards professionalism and decorum. But it was becoming evident to us that military veterans were increasingly being excluded from our process because many of them have tattoos that memorialize their service.
What was the moment you knew this was something the department needed to change?
We had a second hiring process where we asked everybody who had tattoos to stand up and come to the front of the room. We had everybody try on a short-sleeve shirt to see if they met our standard. What struck me is I had a military veteran come over to me who was being asked to leave the process and he had an incredibly detailed memorial tattoo in honor of his best friend who was killed in action while the two of them served together in Iraq. He said, “Just give me an opportunity, chief. I will remove this tattoo.” And I thought here’s a military veteran with something that means a great deal to him tattooed on his body that he wants to get rid of just for the opportunity to be a Manchester police officer. That struck a chord with me. And then we fast forward to the op-ed. When the op-ed came out and I read it, I thought of that military veteran.
What is the new policy? Is it a case-by-case basis?
Our policy starts the tattoo issue, for lack of a better word, at the hiring process. So if you have visible tattoos, you will be allowed in the first phase of our hiring process. That means you can take the written test, the physical agility test, and do the oral interview. If you move forward in the process, given your background and resume, and you’re selected to have a background check conducted on you, that’s when we would assess whether the tattoos are acceptable to the Manchester Police Department. And that may be if there’s an abundance of tattoos. Let’s say you have two full sleeves of tattoos on your arms. That may not fit the professionalism and decorum that the Manchester Police Department wants to exhibit. We’ll also be looking at whether or not the tattoos are racist or gang-related or anything that would be offensive. Nudity, for example; none of that would be acceptable.
Did you compare your new policy to what other departments similar to your size have? Does it differ or is it more in line with similarly-sized departments?
I think this tattoo policy is very unique. It gives greater latitude for the agency to decide what’s an acceptable tattoo and how much tattooing is acceptable. The majority of departments are going the very restrictive way. When you’re making decisions like this, you’re trying to balance the sensitivities of the older generation like my father, who doesn’t understand why a police officer in uniform is walking around with a tattoo with the newer generation of individuals who find body art and tattoos more acceptable, they’re kind of becoming more of the norm. That’s particularly true in the military, where it’s almost a rite of passage. If that’s the case, we have to try to adjust to that while being sensitive to the older generation who does not want to see a police officer in their community walking around with sleeved tattoos in short-sleeve shirts.