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PPD welcoming tasteful tattoos, beards

Courtesy photo
Pulaski Police Chief Jill Neice, from left, Sgt. Anthony Thompson and Lt. Sarah Grim show their tattoos and beards in a photo on the department’s new recruiting flyer, “Inked, Bearded, Employed, Interested?”

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

You can’t look like you just walked off the set of Duck Dynasty or be sporting gang symbols on your body, but tattoos and beards are no longer disqualifiers for employment with Pulaski Police Department.

Tasteful tattoos, including sleeve tattoos, received the okay for employment before Chief Gary Roche retired from the department earlier this year. But the ability to have a beard year-round is a change that has come about under the leadership of new Chief Jill Neice.

“Chief Roche had his standards and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of his standards. But there have been some recruitment issues with some of the younger generation,” she said. “Being tattooed just doesn’t have the stigma that it used to have many, many, many years ago.”

After attending training sessions addressing recruitment and retention in law enforcement, Neice and Sgt. M.D. Parmelee approached Roche about a change in the tattoo policy.

“So he agreed we could hire and recruit people who had sleeve tattoos as long as they were tasteful. That’s a standard, as far as I know, all police departments,” Neice noted. “We don’t want to be off putting, but we do want to represent our community. We’re not letting those be something that prevents a good candidate from coming here.”

She added, “I know a lot of people with a lot of ink and they’re great people, they can do a good job. So I knew that was something we could change because everyone else here agreed that just because you have a tattoo or have facial hair doesn’t mean you can’t do this job and do it well.”

Before the beard policy was changed the only time a police officer could sport a beard was during No Shave November. The annual fundraiser allowed officers to pay a fee for the ability to grow a beard for the month. Proceeds, which were matched by the department’s community policing funds, benefitted T.G. Howard Center.

Now that beards are permitted year-round, Neice said the department will come up with another form of fundraiser to replace No Shave November.

To Neice, allowing officers to grow beards is a way of allowing them to be their own person.

“We’re all in uniform and you can all identify us as police officers, but we’re people with individual tastes. So, we just decided going forward that no matter who the new chief was the town manager and town council felt like it was the right thing to do so we changed that in the rules and regulations manual,” Neice said.

She pointed out many people interested in becoming police officers are former military, who often have beards and tattoos.

“We’ve had military folks in the past who didn’t even apply with us — they just didn’t even look at us — because they knew for a long time we had a policy against tattoos and full sleeves,” she said. “We want people to know we don’t really care if you have a beard now, but you’ve got to keep it trimmed to look good.”

Besides the aesthetics of a trimmed beard, Neice points out there are practical reasons for not letting a beard get out of control. For example, a gas mask wouldn’t fit properly.

To get the word out that the policy has changed, Lt. Sarah Grim created a “Inked, Bearded, Employed, Interested?” flyer that is being posted throughout the area. The flyer includes a photograph of Neice and Grim showing their tattoos and Sgt. Anthony Thompson with his nicely trimmed beard.

“This hopefully opens up some new avenues for us to recruit people who thought that we didn’t want to look at them because they didn’t look like us. We don’t really care if you don’t look like us, we don’t need you to look a certain way. We just need you to be able to serve the community, and I don’t think that matters whether you have a beard or a tattoo,” Neice said.

In fact, Neice said a tattoo or beard could even serve as a conversation starter with members of the community.

Asked whether the national atmosphere surrounding law enforcement is another reason for recruitment and retention issues, Neice said that’s part of it.

“First of all, it’s not like you’re going to make a million dollars. I mean maybe over the course of your entire career, but it doesn’t pay great. It really doesn’t,” Neice said. “People have been trying to work on that — even across our region.” She said area departments are realizing they’re going to have to improve pay or they’ll lose talent to higher paying departments with better benefits.

But the national atmosphere is taking its toll.

“A lot of folks aren’t fans of us right now. I will say though, that I’ve not seen anything but support from our community. I’m sure some people have complaints, and if we’ve done something that we need to address we’ll address it. But for the most part, we haven’t suffered here in this community and that’s a blessing.”

Having been in law enforcement 23 years (all at Pulaski Police Department), Neice does see the job as being “100%” more dangerous than a decade ago because law enforcement is frequently “getting targeted.”

“There’s a lot of folks that are retiring at the same time, and some of the legislative changes in Virginia, and then talk of [doing away with] qualified immunity, has really been the deciding factor for folks,” she said. “And I’m talking about people with 20 years experience. People who you can’t replace that have gone out in droves. That’s nothing new to us or unique to our community, you see that across the nation. So, yes, it’s very difficult for recruitment and retention.”

In general, she said, “I feel like there’s a lack of respect, across the board, for people, not even just in law enforcement. There’s just a lack of respect for your fellow human being.”

Although Neice wasn’t really interested in being chief when Town Manager Darlene Burcham appointed her in an interim capacity this summer, she had a change of heart after being in the position for a while.

“So, I just wasn’t sure that that was something that I needed to be involved in, I just didn’t know. But when Ms. Burcham asked me to be the interim, I thought, here’s a few things that we can do: beards and tattoos, just a couple of things that we can do, and I can help do that.

“Being here for those few months. I just kind of realized we can do this — I realized that it really isn’t all on my shoulders. It’s the whole department and the whole town, and there was a lot of support from people within the town, and the rest of the community was supportive.

“I really didn’t allow myself to think about that before. I just felt my moment had come and gone and it was time to look to someone else; but just being here I felt like we were doing okay,” she added.

So, will Neice still be responding to calls in the field?

Absolutely.

“We’re understaffed and we’re busy, so sometimes it takes the entire department to get up and go handle a situation,” she said, adding there are many times the county assists as well.

“I think everybody’s kind of like that right now. Yeah, I’ll go out here and answer a call. I’m actually a little bit more comfortable doing that than the [administrative functions], she added. She says she’s still learning what being chief “looks like.”

“Chief Roche was involved in so much, with the academies and the civic organizations and we want to make sure we continue to maintain that connection,” she said.

Asked about being the town’s first female chief, Neice said it wasn’t something she thought about until people started pointing it out to her.

“We’ve got a female lieutenant and several females within the department so it wasn’t an issue for me. I guess if there were ever any female officers out there thinking that there was no line of progression within our department that’s clearly not the case. And I don’t think that’s really the case in other departments, but it’s not the case here at ours,” she said.

Those interested in applying for a position with the police department are encouraged to visit the town’s website (pulaskitown.org) and fill out the application under the jobs tab.

“Hopefully people will want to check out us and our beautiful town,” Neice added.

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