Stephen McGinty: Tattoos should be non-PC

Many people associate 'sleeves' of ink with aggression and crime. Picture: Robert Perry
Many people associate 'sleeves' of ink with aggression and crime. Picture: Robert Perry
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OUR police officers may be part of the thin blue line, but it sends out the wrong message to allow them to be heavily covered in inked body art, argues Stephen McGinty

The weight and dominance of the Metropolitan Police in London is such that many believe that where they go, the rest of Britain’s police services will soon follow. Yet it is often forgotten that, in Scotland, the roles are sometimes reversed. Forty years before Sir Robert Peel founded London’s uniformed officers in 1829, a police force was already patrolling Glasgow’s streets.

Then there are the elements of the Met no citizen would wish to see emulated across Britain. At a time when we see corruption in all walks of life, it is important to remember how far we have come from the dark days of the late Sixties and Seventies when police corruption was at its height.

In 1972, when Robert Mark was appointed Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, he said: “The basic test of a decent police force is that it catches more criminals than it employs. And the Met is failing that test.”

Later, when he replaced the head of CID with a uniformed officer – the first time this had been done – he was told that it was like putting a Chinese chef in charge of a French kitchen, to which he replied: “At least the kitchen will be clean.”

So it is refreshing that this week, the Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Bernard Hogan-Howe, felt it no longer necessary to clean up CID but the arms of his officers. There are some issues that just get under your skin and, for me, elaborately-tattooed police officers is one of them. This week Hogan-Howe said that: “All visible tattoos damage the professional image of the Metropolitan Police Service.” Consequently, all visible tattoos on the hands, face or neck must be registered by 12 November and all other tattoos must be covered by everyday clothing. There is a belief that young police officers appear “thuggish” in their personal embroidery and I tend to agree.

What will become the blanket position in Scotland on this inky subject? For once again London appears to have followed Scotland’s lead. In 2010, Lothian & Borders Police Force insisted that all tattoos be covered up while on duty, a decision described at the time by Jackie Muller, branch secretary of the Scottish Police Federation as “draconian”.

In the west, the view is a little more lenient. According to the Strathclyde Police website, the advice to new recruits is: “Tattoos are not a bar to appointment. However, some tattoos could potentially offend members of the public or colleagues, or could bring discredit to the police service. It depends on their size, nature and location and sometimes to the extent. If applicants have tattoos on their face, neck, forearms or hands they should describe their nature, words used, extent, size and location.”

It deems tattoos unacceptable if they: undermine the dignity and authority of the officer; could cause offence and/or invite provocation; are garish, extensive or particularly prominent; indicate unacceptable attitudes towards women, minority groups or any other section of the community or are considered to be rude, racist, sexist, sectarian, homophobic, violent or intimidating.

Yet now that Stephen House, the chief constable of Strathclyde, has been appointed to lead the new Police Service of Scotland, will this mean that Lothian & Border’s position is softened or Strathclyde’s tightened?

So, let us rehearse the argument for permitting police officers to decorate their bodies as they see fit. We live in a, relatively, free society that allows anyone over 18 to tattoo themselves and, as guardians of this free society, should they not be entitled to participate in just such a freedom? In the past 20 years, the popularity of tattooing among the young has proliferated and no longer is it viewed as an anti-establishment act but as a symbol of personal expression. When Judy Steel, the wife of Lord David Steel announced that her 70th birthday would be celebrated by the addition of a tattoo, it was another sign that coloured ink had became part of the mainstream.

For the tattoo has gone through a number of incarnations since the term was first coined by Joseph Banks, the naturalist who sailed with Captain Cook on HMS Endeavour and wrote, in 1771, about the “tattooed” men of Samoa. In the late 18th century, only the wealthiest members of society could afford to have a tattoo, while in the 19th century they became popular among sailors and, in the 20th century, with soldiers. The ink bled out during the 1950s, 60s and 70s and became a symbol of the counter-culture and criminal classes only for it to become more popular with ordinary members of the public in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, it is estimated that 30 per cent of people in Britain under 30 have at least one tattoo.

So, by wearing a tattoo, a policeman is demonstrating that he understands and is part of contemporary society, that he is familiar with the aspirations and concerns of young people. It is a visual symbol that he has taken a step forward from “them” towards “us”. A group of young people who interact with an officer who shares their tattoos have an unspoken link, on one level, they can understand each other and, as police unions have explained in the past, it can be used as an “icebreaker”. For the Scots police officer, it can also be a nod to his cultural heritage as a descendent of the Picts, the painted people of ancient Caledonia.

The problem comes when this argument is extended beyond the strict confines of tattoos. If a tattoo is a way in which the police can reach out to a young society, can this not also be achieved by the proliferate use of body piercings? Surely eyebrow rings or bolts could also serve as a visual representation of their affinity with modern society? Or long hair? If police officers had shoulder-length hair, they could also use it to connect with youth culture.

We hit a natural barrier with these two points as earrings and long hair could be a serious safety concern when an officer becomes involved in a troublesome arrest, an issue we do not have with tattoos. In fact, it could be argued that they are safest form of “icebreaker”, offering no grip or purchase for a violent offender to rip or pull.

If so, why am I opposed to allowing police officers to be heavily tattooed and in favour of restricting them? On one level it is such a square, old-fashioned attitude and should have no bearing, whatsoever, on an officer’s ability to do his job with diligence and pride, but I’ll try and get to the nub of my feeling. When I see a police officer in short-sleeved top with his arm decorated with the jagged black blades of an inked “sleeve”, my heart sinks a little. The reason is that I associate such tattoos with body builders, soldiers and, to be blunt, aggression. To me, it is indicative of a particular mindset, a visual symbol of machismo and if I had to bet which officer would be more likely to get carried away with his baton during an arrest, I’d put my money on the illustrated man.

Is this deeply unfair? Well, Joshua Adams, an American sociologist would say no. In his paper The Relationship between Tattooing and Deviance in Contemporary Society, he argued that there was a link between tattoos and criminal behaviour. Of course, a tattoo will not inspire you to commit a crime, but those who have tattoos are more likely to commit a crime, particularly those whose ink is most visible.

A 2004 study of 500 adults aged between 18 and 50 found that those with face, neck or hand tattoos were 11 times more likely to have spent more than three days in jail than a person without any tattoos.

All this information, emotion and concern happens in an instant. Others may feel differently. Yet why allow members of the public to feel this way? If these tattoos were the temporary transfers of our childhood, they would not be permitted. Police officers would be, quite correctly, told that if they wish to wear them in their own time, so be it, but not on the job. But the reason police forces are having to make accommodations, or not, is because these individuals have made a conscious choice to decorate themselves in such a manner that it cannot be undone and must be either accepted or disguised.

A second argument in favour of concealing tattoos beneath long-sleeve shirts, even in summer, is that they are simply untidy. A police officer is not an ordinary member of the public and nor do we wish them to be. Their role is to enforce the law and protect the public. On paper it is a role of the highest nobility, we want them to be better, straighter, more diligent and honourable than ourselves.

As GK Chesterton said: “The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man.” First impressions do count and the heavily-tattooed officer, to my mind, has a black mark before he has even opened his mouth. They are part of the thin blue line, but it shouldn’t be inked on their arm.