Philly FOP loses labor fight over police department’s tattoo policy

Former police officer Ian Hans Lichtermann's tattoo caused a public uproar and the department to develop a policy over such body art. The rules have been upheld by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (Facebook photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Christina Kristofic

PHILADELPHIA — The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has upheld the Philadelphia Police Department’s unilateral decision to institute a policy regarding officers’ tattoos in the wake of public outcry over one officer’s apparent Nazi tattoo.

The PLRB issued a final order this week dismissing the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5’s complaint that the police department should have negotiated the policy with the union.

A public employer has “the managerial right to implement policies that promote the public’s confidence and ensure integrity in the government,” the PLRB said. “The City has an interest in its officers, as representatives of the City, having an appearance of providing fair, balanced and non-prejudicial law enforcement. Offensive tattoos undermine the public perception of the integrity and credibility of the officer and the City thereby losing the public’s trust.”

The police department’s policy prohibits officers from having tattoos — on any parts of their bodies — that could be interpreted “to advocate, promote, and support hatred and/or violence towards any person or group of persons based on race, national origin, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation” or “as grossly indecent, lewd or sexual that shocks the moral sense because of their crude, vulgar, filthy or disgusting nature.”

Any tattoos that violate the policy must be covered with makeup or clothing, and officers may use their uniform allowance to buy clothes or creams that cover the tattoos.

The Philadelphia Police Department implemented the policy in 2017, after department leaders determined they could not discipline an officer with an apparent Nazi tattoo because they did not have a policy in place prohibiting such tattoos.

The officer, Ian Hans Lichterman, who joined the force in 2000 and quit in 2018, wore a short-sleeved uniform shirt to Philadelphia’s #BlackResistanceMarch event during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, revealing a tattoo on his left forearm that showed an eagle with its wings spread wide under the word “Fatherland.”

A protester who noticed the tattoo took a photo and posted it on social media, where it was shared widely. Many thought the tattoo resembled the eagle used in the Nazi emblem.

Leaders in the Jewish community and other groups expressed disdain for Lichterman’s tattoo and criticized then-Police Commissioner Richard Ross for allowing Lichterman to have such a tattoo.

Mayor Jim Kenney called the tattoo “disturbing” and “incredibly offensive.”

“I am deeply offended by the tattoo and I think it is completely inappropriate for any law enforcement officer to have such a tattoo given its impact on those they are sworn to protect and serve,” Kenney said in one statement. “Since the investigation determined that the officer couldn’t be dismissed because PPD does not have a policy against tattoos, we will draft such a policy so this cannot happen again.”

FOP President John McNesby immediately pushed back, saying there was “nothing wrong” with Lichterman’s tattoo.

Capt. Francis Healy, an attorney and the special legal adviser to the police commissioner, spent several months researching and developing the policy.

In addition to prohibiting offensive, extremist, indecent, racist and sexist tattoos on any part of the body, the policy also prohibits tattoos of any kind on officers’ heads, scalps, faces and necks. Cosmetic tattoos, such as tattooed eyebrows and tattooed eyeliner, are an exception.

The police department told the FOP about the policy in February 2017 and the FOP asked to negotiate the policy.

Police department leaders distributed and implemented the policy — without negotiating with the FOP — on March 15, 2017.

The FOP filed a charge of unfair labor practices 12 days later, and the PLRB’s hearing examiner held a hearing in November that year. The hearing examiner dismissed the FOP’s complaint in a decision issued on Dec. 31, 2018.

The FOP filed exceptions, arguing that the policy should have been subject to negotiation and that it was “overbroad” and “vague.” The PLRB ruled that the policy sufficiently describes what kinds of tattoos are inappropriate.

Spokespeople for the police department and the FOP could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Christina Kristofic is the City Editor of the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Overbroad and vague? How about ambiguous and conflicting the same time.

    While I have a disdain for tattooing in general, legally, I lump this with the public accommodation laws that are biased and outdated. Maybe I can find a copy of the full policy somewhere for a better perspective.

    Until then, the judge was both right AND wrong. Right about what was said and wrong about what wasn’t.

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