Ryan Stevens has two law enforcement degrees and is studying for a third as he works full time as a state-employed guard at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault.
The 31-year-old Richfield resident dreams of becoming a police officer, but recently was rejected for a job with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office because the tattoos on his arms violated department policy.
"It's really put up a lot of roadblocks and shut down opportunities for me," said Stevens, among six of about 50 candidates disqualified for tattoos in a recent round of hiring. It's a culture clash that's increasingly common in law enforcement and other workplaces as tattoos become more popular with young people entering the workforce. Many law-enforcement agencies allow them but require they be covered, arguing that their officers need to maintain a professional image and that some tattoos can provoke the inmates.
Sheriff Rich Stanek changed his department's policy about two years ago to limit tattoo visibility on new hires. Deputies already on the job are exempt from the policy.
While one law enforcement educator said the policy goes against increased acceptance of tattoos, no one disputes Stanek's right to set the rules.
"They establish the policy and they have business reasons to support it," said Kari Boe-Schmidtz, division supervisor for Human Resources in the county.
Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Lisa Kiava said the priority is the safety of the people in the jail. About 70 percent of the male inmates have used illegal narcotics in the hours before they are arrested and some are drunk while they are being booked. She said another 30 percent are mentally ill.
"We are working with a challenging population," she said.
Stevens' tattoo became an issue last month. When filling out a Hennepin County detention deputy application online, he was asked to check yes or no about whether he would abide by the "grooming policy." A link directed applicants to a five-page policy that barred uniformed licensed deputies and detention deputies who work in the jail from having "any visible tattoos, scarifications or brandings" that would show when a short-sleeve uniform shirt was worn. Stevens doesn't recall seeing the question or the link.
About 400 candidates applied for the detention-deputy jobs, which have a salary range of $36,138 to $58,105. After the written test, Stevens and about 50 others advanced to the next phase that included background and physical agility tests.
According to the county, six of the candidates were disqualified at that point because of tattoos and 43 candidates advanced to enter a pool for possible job interviews. The county took a dim view of those who were disqualified.
"Most people were able to read and follow the instructions," Kiava said.
The Sheriff's Department is the only department in Hennepin County government with a tattoo policy. The county's Department of Corrections runs the workhouse but has no policy, Boe-Schmidtz said. She said this was the third class of sheriff's detention deputy recruits, but the first to drop candidates for tattoos.
Mylan Masson, director of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Education Center at Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park, said the sheriff's policy bucks a trend of more permissiveness with tattoos than in the 1970s and 1980s. "You want to say, what is the harm?" she said about the tattoos.
The divide is generational. According to a 2008 Pew Research Center study, roughly one in three people between ages 18 and 40 have at least one tattoo. That number drops to one in five older than 40.
Tattoos have gone mainstream. They used to be viewed as counterculture or military and appeared mainly on men on the biceps or back, she said. Now tattoos are generally viewed as art and are more commonly seen on women.
In Carver County, Sheriff's Chief Deputy Jason Kamerud said tattoo restrictions are much discussed in law enforcement, especially in parts of the country where the weather is warmer and wearing long sleeves is a hardship. In his office, head, face and neck tattoos are prohibited. Tattoos elsewhere on the body might need to be covered, but it's discretionary, he said.
"We have considered changing [the policy], but we haven't done anything. We're taking a wait-and-see approach," he said.
In Ramsey County, the sheriff requires that "every reasonable effort" be made to cover tattoos while on duty. Face and neck tattoos are barred.
Bob Boisvert, an employment law expert at Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron, said an employer must have a "legitimate, non-discriminatory business purpose" to ban tattoos. But legal standards differ between public and private employers.
Unlike the sheriff, most private employers "don't have the compelling business reason of dangerous inmates," he said. Government might have an easier time than a private employer of finding a compelling interest for a policy, he said. But government employers also are required to provide greater First Amendment protections to freedom of religion and speech.
As for Stevens, he isn't going in for tattoo removal or giving up his dream. He has applied to a county with a less restrictive policy.
"I just don't think a tattoo's disrespectful or offensive to anybody," he said. "I think it should be the most qualified individual who gets the job."
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson