The current issue of trooper tattoos isn’t about tattoos, but about the state’s slide into mediocrity, and worse.
The surface question is whether the Kansas Highway Patrol should reconsider a regulation that prohibits visible tattoos on uniformed troopers. For generations, tattoos, especially in excess, were considered the markings of low-renters, punks, ex-convicts, rowdy sailers and others from society’s rougher edges. But in recent years, tattoos have become popular among people in every sector of life; for many, a tattoo is as familiar to the skin as clothing or jewelry, if a bit more permanent, and no longer exclusive to gender, race, creed or class.
For decades, a tattoo that could not be covered by a regulation uniform kept potential recruits from even applying for the Patrol. A visible tattoo might project something uncouth or crude. But our younger crowds now freely sport their tattoos, especially those in the military, a popular labor pool for work in law enforcement; the old assumptions that went with tattoos apparently no longer hold. Thus: Should the Highway Patrol, an elite agency that sets the gold standard for law enforcement in Kansas, revoke its ban on visible tattoos?
The question arises not through any social pressure, but because the state is out of money. It can no longer afford to pay troopers a decent wage. The Patrol is currently 100 troopers short of its normal capacity of 550, and unable to find enough qualified recruits who are tattooless in the right places – and willing to sign on for the low pay.
Ignoring old bugaboos about tattoos is somehow supposed to address the trooper shortage. (But what goes through the mind of a motorist, pulled over on a lonely stretch of road, face-to-neck with the outline of dagger in ink, or lightning bolt, or bony, black sockets at the top of a skull? They don’t see the badge. They see the image.)
This is not to downgrade bearer or tattoo. But ink may tell us something about a person, and it could detract from any mission at hand.
The issue signals a lowering of standards, another slip in Kansas’s downward slide. The state’s budget is dry, thanks to the idiocy of a governor and the Republican far right determined to abolish income taxes for the wealthy. To counter the resulting budget deficit, we lower our goals, our standards, our pay and our expectations.
As of last November, 36 counties were without a designated trooper, 29 were served by one. The best is no longer possible because we can’t afford it – not in law enforcement, in education, in public health, in highways, in social welfare, economic development, even the arts.
In other times, state setbacks would be covered, temporarily at least, by an increase in local effort, in higher property and sales taxes, until a governor or legislators came to their senses.
But the legislature has forced a lid on local taxes, preventing cities, counties and school districts even from tapping into their own tax base. The legislature would abolish local control, sidestep accountability and avoid blame by preventing local tax increases that can be attributed to state incompetence.
But it cannot prevent roads going to gravel, or bridges falling down, or parks going to weed, or hospitals closing, or the best teachers and administrators from leaving their schools or, even, the exodus of citizens themselves for a better life elsewhere.
Tattoos are a signal that we’re in greater danger than we thought – not from troopers who show them, but from clueless legislators who forced the issue in the first place.
– JOHN MARSHALL