San Jose police officers with an affinity for tattoos may sweat a little more than usual in the summertime.

The San Jose Police Department recently adopted a policy that prohibits cops from displaying tattoos while on duty. So officers with tattoos will either have to wear long-sleeved shirts year-round to cover up or have them removed.

Responding to unhappy officers, Police Chief Rob Davis last week agreed to exempt cops with tattoos the chief decides are not offensive to the public.

Over the past several months, the matter of officers and tattoos has become a nationwide issue in law enforcement and the military. Many agencies, including the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, California Highway Patrol and Los Angeles Police Department, have adopted policies prohibiting personnel from showing off body art while on duty.

"It's absolutely one of the big issues," said Bobby Lopez, president of the 1,360-member San Jose Police Officers Association. "It's been coming for a while, only because the next generation always goes over the top."

Some law enforcement agencies are seeing younger officers sporting "sleeves," which can be one large tattoo or a collection of smaller tattoos that usually covers the entire arm, from shoulder to wrist.

Tattoos, which many years ago often signified military service or gang affiliation, have become more mainstream, according to a study published last year in the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology. Nearly one out of every four Americans has a tattoo, according to the study, which also found about 36 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 have tattoos.

Community concerns

But Chief Davis believes the policy, which went into effect Sept. 23, is necessary. Davis first became aware of the issue after hearing people in the community voice concerns about the tattoos being displayed by officers. After looking internally, Davis found that "the concerns people voiced were valid."

"We cannot settle for anything less when it comes to the presentation of our officers in the community, and how we are perceived in the community," Davis said.

Some agencies, including police departments in San Jose, Long Beach and San Diego, allow tattoos that are partly visible or deemed inoffensive. In San Jose, any exceptions to the rule must be approved by the chief's office or a member of his command staff. Davis said the policy will be "pretty stringent," and that officers seeking an exception must meet "a real high mark."

"Clearly there are some individuals who are not happy," Davis said. "They are in the minority. The majority of the feedback from officers has been 'this is great.' They've seen some of the tattoos displayed" and do not feel they are professional.

The Marine Corps cited similar concerns when it banned new, extra-large tattoos below the elbow or the knee earlier this year.

Lopez, the union chief, agrees that some tattoos displayed by officers need to be covered up to maintain an appearance of professionalism. Lopez was pleased that Davis was willing to make an exception, especially for veteran cops who are suddenly being told to cover up their tattoos. Lopez estimates that about 30 of the 1,360 San Jose officers will be affected by the policy.

'Great' compromise

"We do have some officers who are unhappy, but the compromise was great," Lopez said.

The issue started to pick up steam last year, when five police officers from Hartford, Conn., lost a lawsuit claiming tattoo bans violate their First Amendment rights. A lower-court judge dismissed the lawsuit and a federal appeals court ruled that policies banning officers from displaying tattoos don't violate the Constitution.

"Nobody is restricting their rights of how to express themselves on their own time," Davis said. "When working for the San Jose Police Department, we have to regulate appearance. My belief is that the community expects that of us."

Lopez agrees that officers must maintain a certain level of professionalism, but would like to see more wiggle room in the policy.

"We are professionals, and we understand that," Lopez said. "Not all tattoos would we consider offensive, and sometimes they are a little patriotic.

"Let's always remember the big old tattoo of 'mom,' " Lopez said. "Are we going to cover up mother?"