ORLANDO, Fla. – By all accounts, James Baker — instantly recognizable by his hulking 6 feet, 5 inches frame, bulging biceps and tattoo-covered arms — is an effective police officer within the Orlando Police Department’s Neighborhood Patrol Unit (NPU).
The unit is tasked with getting to know neighbors in areas of high crime to build trust and generate tips.
But the Orlando Police Department almost never came to know Baker — because of his tattoos.
If the department’s policy would not have allowed Baker to show his tattoos on his arms when he applied for the job, he “probably would have reconsidered.”
Baker’s arms are full of art, he said.
“My tattoos are inspired by different movies and TV shows and cartoons that I loved growing up in the 80s - the Joker from ‘Batman,’ ‘Ninja Turtles,’” Baker said. “It’s a form of expression. Allows you to know what I’m into. And what I enjoy. Shows you that I’m a normal person and I have similar interests as a regular person walking around.”
Chief Orlando Rolon said after two years of trying to update the department’s policy on tattoos, he finally succeeded.
“It used to be that anything below the sleeve could not be shown,” Rolon said. “A lot of people are coming into the profession with tattoos on their arms or bodies. I don’t know the exact percentage but I can tell you it’s a very high percentage, not just police officers but firefighters, the military.”
Department policy used to require officers cover up their tattooed arms with sleeves.
“We are reflection of the community we serve, we’re hiring people from the community that we’re serving,” Rolon said. “So we have to stay on top of the changing trends and this is what I believe was an easy decision.”
It is only the latest department policy overhaul, after allowing facial hair and more relaxed uniforms.
“I bet you that we lost a lot of opportunities to hire officers who are very proud of their tattoos that they had gotten over time,” Rolon said. “Unfortunately because the climate here is very humid, it’s very hot, to ask them to wear long sleeves or sleeves over there tattoos probably made a difference in their decision to go elsewhere. So we do believe this will help with our recruitment efforts.”
Baker said there’s another benefit to the tattoo policy update: showing his tattoos makes him even more effective.
“When people don’t see you as a robot or just a cookie-cutter person, they can see that you do normal people stuff and they’re more inclined to talk to you and be relaxed,” Baker said. “I’ve been out at places where there’s kids there and they see me with the tattoo and they’re like, ‘Oh you have tattoos you’re pretty cool,’ just based on that they think I’m cool. I’m just a regular guy and all of a sudden no longer just a uniform.”
Rolon said the new policy is still strict about what types of tattoos officers can have. There’s a vetting process for questionable tattoos to verify that a tattoo on a candidate or one that an officer is thinking about getting is appropriate.
And the new policy does have a limit: tattoos can’t be visible below the wrist cuff (hands) or above the neck collar. But just like how the old policy evolved, Rolon said this new one may evolve again in the years to come.