Honolulu Police Chief's Ban On Visible Tattoos Sparks Criticism : Code Switch Native Hawaiians on the police force have criticized the ban. Many say tattoos are part of their cultural heritage and should remain in plain sight.

Honolulu Police Chief's Ban On Visible Tattoos Sparks Criticism

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Police officers in Honolulu can't have tattoos showing when they're on the job. That ban went into effect there today. That's similar to policies in other cities, including New York and Los Angeles. But for native Hawaiians, tattoos are often a part of their cultural heritage. They say covering the body art impinges on their religious freedom. Wayne Yoshioka of Hawaii Public Radio filed this report.

WAYNE YOSHIOKA, BYLINE: A native Hawaiian cultural tattoo is tapped into the skin using a handheld tool. It resembles a miniature rake with needle-sharp tines made of animal tusks, dipped in black ink.

KEONE NUNES: Kakau is what we do. But what is remaining is called uhi.

YOSHIOKA: Keone Nunes is a practitioner who taps out tattoo designs, just as they were done a thousand years ago. Uhi, or the artwork, Nunes says, is secondary to the prayers, protocols and techniques used in the ancient, native Hawaiian process.

NUNES: The symbols identified who you were, identified who your family - had protective meanings for it. So there is a huge religious connotation to it.

YOSHIOKA: But Honolulu's police chief sees it differently. Louis Kealoha is a native Hawaiian who has a cultural tattoo on his right bicep but says his dress and grooming policy establishes uniform standards without exceptions.

LOUIS KEALOHA: You cannot say everybody with a cultural tattoo, you know, that's OK because you're expressing your cultural side. You can do that off-duty, but you cannot have any visible tattoos. That's going to take away from the professional image of the officer and of the reputation of the police department.

YOSHIOKA: More than 400 Honolulu police officers, 20 percent of the force, have tattoos on their arms, necks or faces. Their options are to remove the tattoos, cover them with skin-colored makeup, or wear long-sleeved shirts.

NICK SCHLAPAK: Well, I have several tattoos on my right arm. Almost all of them are visible in a short-sleeve uniform.

YOSHIOKA: Patrol officer Nick Schlapak has tattoos from his wrist to his elbow. Schlapak says covering up tattoos is about more than culture. It can also be risky.

SCHLAPAK: And long sleeved uniform can be used against an officer. A suspect can grab ahold of it, and sometimes it's hard to get their hands off of it. So you can have safety issues in that respect.

YOSHIOKA: Schlapak also says there are comfort and cost considerations. Long-sleeved, dark blue uniforms are hot in tropical weather and cost up to $40 more than a short-sleeved version. Honolulu police union chair Stan Aquino says the department should not penalize officers with tattoos.

STAN AQUINO: Our main purpose here is to identify where the cost is going to be coming from. You know, we believe it should come from the employer and not from the individual officers themselves.

YOSHIOKA: The department already pays more than $300 annually for uniforms and basic upkeep. But the main issue isn't really about money, comfort or safety. Tattoo practitioner Nunes says it's the cultural meaning and expression that's important.

NUNES: When they say that you have to cover up your tattoos or we're not going to hire you because of tattoos, they're looking at it from a very Western perspective. But when you look at it in a more indigenous perspective, they're not understanding the conflicts that might occur with the Freedom of Religion Act and things of that nature.

YOSHIOKA: The Honolulu Police Department motto is integrity, respect and fairness. Officers with tattoos say they would like the department to respect their freedom to express their culture. For NPR News, I'm Wayne Yoshioka in Honolulu.



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