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Law enforcement agencies ease rules for inked officers

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Published:   |   Updated: August 12, 2013 at 11:10 AM

Twelve years ago, when she joined the Pinellas Park Police Department, Lonnie Lancto had two tattoos; one on her lower back and one on her ankle. Neither could be seen when she was in uniform.

Now Lancto has seven tattoos, two of which are visible – or partly visible – when she works the night shift as a corporal, helping supervise patrol officers in her dark-blue uniform.

A tattoo of a lily is on her left wrist, and there’s a tattoo of the word “Bionic” on her right bicep, a testament to the metal parts inserted into her spine and clavicle after an errant motorist struck her squad car while she was on duty in March 2006.

Part of that tattoo is visible beneath her short-sleeve shirt.

Some law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area don’t allow any part of a tattoo to be visible when an official is in uniform. The Tampa Police Department, for instance, has a zero-tolerance policy. So do the Hillsborough and the Pasco county sheriff’s offices.

But leaders of other agencies, such as the Pinellas Park police, are adopting more flexible approaches, and it’s not just to keep officers like Lancto happy. They also have eased standards because more and more job applicants have tattoos, and some of them are excellent candidates.

The Tarpon Springs Police Department had a policy, instituted in 2008, that prohibited any part of a tattoo from being visible while an officer was in uniform. But last year a new policy was put into effect that allows tattoos which don’t cover more than a quarter of an exposed body part.

Tarpon Springs Police Chief Robert Kochen said his agency wanted to strike a balance between maintaining an image of professionalism and lightening up a little on its officers. Officers with tattoos on their forearms were wearing long sleeves to comply with the former policy — an impractical compromise given Florida’s unrelenting heat.

“If you had a policy that said no tattoo can show, and you have a really good candidate with a small tattoo that’s not offensive, they had to wear a sleeve,” Kochen said.

While the threshold in Tarpon Springs is no more than 25 percent of an exposed body part, in Pinellas Park it’s 20 percent, and the rule applies only to hands and arms.

At all local agencies, tattoos are prohibited on an officer’s face, neck and scalp. Recently recruiters for the Pinellas Park police interviewed a candidate with a tattoo of a clef on his neck, a symbol of his past affiliation with a musical band.

“We won’t entertain hiring him because it violates the tattoo policy,” said Capt. Sanfield Forseth.

The St. Petersburg Police Department enacted its first tattoo policy in April, and it allows tattoos only on arms, with specific parameters.

“One tattoo on the arm between the wrist and two inches above the inside bend of the elbow is permitted and may remain uncovered under the following condition: “Its maximum dimensions are less than 3 inches by 5 inches as tested by placing a standard 3-inch by five-inch note card over the tattoo.”

St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon said candidates are asked about their tattoos during the selection process — even the ones not immediately apparent.

If a candidate has a “big ol’ swastika” on his back, Harmon said, “I would want to know about that.”

But Harmon, like other area law enforcement leaders, learned officers also get tattoos after they have been hired.

“It’s a First Amendment issue, so to speak,” Harmon said. “If they have some personal message on their body, I don’t need to know about it unless it impacts their employment.”

Like all agencies that allow tattoos, the St. Petersburg police don’t allow any that might be offensive to the community.

A couple such tattoos surfaced at the St. Petersburg Police Department, and Harmon told the officers to cover them.

One tattoo was of a skull, which was etched in memoriam to the three St. Petersburg police officers slain on duty in 2011.

“They weren’t terrible,” Harmon said of the hidden tattoos, “but if the community saw them, they might raise questions about the officers’ objectivity.”

Lancto said she thinks tattoos are becoming more accepted — at police agencies and by the public.

“That stigma of the biker, military type of thing is gone,” said the 40-year-old. “It’s more of an artistic expression now.”

Lancto said when she got the lily tattoo on her wrist two months ago, a couple of fellow officers and those officers’ family members were with her.

One officer got a tattoo of a frog on his right biceps.

“There’s probably more officers that have them (at the Pinellas Park Police Department) than not,” she said.

sthompson@tampatrib.com. (727) 215-6504.

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