PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, CMC – A High Court judge in Trinidad and Tobago has ruled that a policy of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service on recruits having tattoos is discriminatory and ill-advised.
“There is an evident dichotomy and inequality of treatment with respect to potential recruits and serving officers in relation to visible tattoos and there is no apparent justification for a blanket prohibition against visible tattoos,” said Justice Frank Seepersad.
The judge said the police should focus on more important things as he declared the rights of a graphic artist were violated by the “unconstitutional and illegal” policy.
Seepersad has since ordered compensation for Dillon Ramraj, who was told he could not apply to become a police officer because of a Shuriken (ninja star) tattoo on his left hand.
Ramraj, whose attorneys included former attorney general Anand Ramlogan, challenged the constitutionality of the police service’s body-art policy.
“There must be a rational and reasonable connection between the tattoo policy and the restriction imposed upon the rights of the individual but based upon the information placed before this court, it is difficult to comprehend why the visibility of a tattoo serves to disqualify a citizen who wishes to protect and serve,” the judge said in his ruling.
He said the state failed to point to any logical basis for the policy for recruits.
“The tattoo policy, in its current form, stands as an archaic, artificial administrative barrier which occasions significant prejudice. Its existence and implementation are unreasonable and cannot be justified in a modern democratic state.
“In a society, such as this, where citizens clamour in fear because they are under siege and plagued by rampant criminal conduct, it is difficult to comprehend why the recruitment process is concerned about the visibility of tattoos and its attention is not focused upon the character, integrity and ability of potential recruits,” the High Court judge added.
He noted that tattoos are relatively permanent markings and the process of removing one is painful, so there was a burden on the state to establish that the police service’s body art policy had a legitimate aim or that its reputation or an officer’s ability to do his duty would be hampered by a visible tattoo at the recruitment stage.
“It is not lost upon the court that once they are recruited, police officers are free to proudly display tattoos,” Seepersad said, making reference to a senior police officer who hosts a television show and whose arm tattoos extend beyond his cuffs and are plainly visible.
“It is odd that no issue is taken with respect to the visibility of tattoos on a senior and respected officer who is a representative for the TTPS on a national level, via prime-time television, but the issue is taken with the recruitment of an individual, like the claimant, whose tattoo was seen only by the TTPS’s recruiting personnel and not the public at large.”
Seepersad said a visible tattoo that was not offensive could not logically affect a police officer’s ability on the job, nor was there evidence of a connection between the policy and the curation of a competent and capable workforce.
“Tattoos and body art are a form of expression and democratic societies should adopt a cautious approach when dealing with the curtailment of an individual’s right to express oneself by having any form of body art,” he said, noting that many people now have an “a liberal and all-inclusive sense of acceptance and fluidity”, especially about behaviour, appearance and inter-personal interaction.
“The norms of the past are not necessarily accepted as the norms of the present. Laws are meant to govern and regulate a society and respect for the rule of law is only engendered when constitutional standards and the law are regarded by the majority as being relevant and relatable,” the judge added.