The Philadelphia Police Department can unilaterally implement a policy requiring officers cover up offensive tattoos without involving the police union, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruled.
In a final order issued this week, the board dismissed a complaint filed by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 that argued the department couldn’t require officers to cover up tattoos — specifically those that are “offensive, extremist, indecent, racist or sexist” — without going through collective bargaining.
The board saw it differently, finding in favor of a hearing examiner who concluded that requiring the city to bargain over the policy would “infringe on its managerial interest in gaining the public’s trust and respect through maintaining a professional and uniform police department.”
The department announced the policy in early 2017, five months after it became embroiled in controversy after a photo surfaced of an on-duty police officer during a protest at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The officer had a forearm tattoo that appeared to depict a Nazi-inspired image, a spread-winged eagle under the word Fatherland.
The officer, Ian Lichterman, was cleared of wrongdoing after an Internal Affairs investigation that noted he didn’t violate any policy. Lichterman, who joined the force in 2000, quit in 2018, a police spokesperson said Thursday.
Mayor Jim Kenney assailed the ink as “incredibly offensive" and initially called for Lichterman’s dismissal. After the officer was cleared, Kenney vowed the department would draft a policy “so this cannot happen again.” After the photo surfaced, FOP president John McNesby said the tattoo was “not a big deal.”
The department’s policy doesn’t prohibit officers from obtaining offensive tattoos, only that they cover them with clothing or makeup, which they may use their uniform allowance to purchase. The policy also requires officers to cover up visible tattoos or body art on the head, face, neck, or scalp.
In a charge of unfair labor practices filed in March 2017, the FOP alleged the city violated the state Labor Relations Act by unilaterally implementing the policy, and a hearing was held in November 2017. The hearing examiner held that the city “has a substantial and legitimate interest in maintaining the public’s perception of integrity, fairness and equality in law enforcement and public services, especially in a city as culturally, ethnically, religiously and racially diverse as the City of Philadelphia.”
The FOP continued to argue the policy doesn’t achieve the city’s stated purpose — maintaining public trust and respect — because the department didn’t have such a policy in place before the controversy. The union also claimed the policy was overbroad in that it applied to all officers, regardless of their level of contact with the public.
The policy remained in effect as the FOP challenged it. McNesby didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.