'It feels like they’re judging you' – Tattooed Shropshire woman hits out after being rejected by police
Tattoos are so mainstream that Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Winston Churchill and David Dimbleby have all had them.
But for Natalie Westoll, who has wanted to be a police officer since she was growing up in London, they have stopped her following her dreams.
After moving to Newport, she felt the time was right for her to fulfil her ambitions. But the mother-of-one, who works at McDonald’s, has been rejected from various forces – because she is covered in ink.
“Individually I’ve lost count, but I am 80 per cent covered,” says the 35-year-old who has been rejected by West Mercia Police, West Midlands Police and the British Transport Police.
“You try and apply, and they initially ask for your name and date of birth and things like that. Then you get to the question of tattoos and if you answer yes to hand or neck tattoos, sometimes you don’t even get through to the application.”
Natalie insists her tattoos are not offensive, but claims that only one of the forces, West Mercia Police, actually asked her to show pictures before refusal.
“It feels like they’re judging you before they even see you,” she says. “On their websites it says they take people by merit, but they obviously are not because they haven’t given me the chance. If I went through the application process and I was rubbish then fine, say no. But you can’t just say because someone has tattoos they are not going to be good at the job
“People have lives and do things before they might want to do something else later on in life. I used to work in a tattoo studio, so I’m covered.
“I always wanted to be in the police, but when I was younger I didn’t have the confidence to do it. Now I have the confidence it’s not ok because I have ink on my skin.”
Natalie has email exchanges with forces, including one which suggests she might be considered if she was “willing to have them removed”.
“They are asking someone to change themselves,” she says. “At the moment I want to join as a Special Constable. So you’ve got someone who is willing to give up their time to help their community but they aren’t accepted by the force.
“I am representing the community. So many people have tattoos and when I talk to my friends they say I’d rather come up to you if I saw you as a police officer because I’d think you are more down to earth because of the way you look.
“Something garish, horror related, or racist I could understand. But when you’re just talking about a butterfly and a few love hearts I don’t understand the problems.”
There is no nationwide police policy on tattoos, and there is variation across the country as to what is permissible.
Last year the Metropolitan Police relaxed some of its rules on tattoos saying it would allow some visible tattoos and West Yorkshire Police announced last week that potential recruits must send photos of their tattoos with their applications.
A Police Federation study in 2016 showed 60 per cent of those questioned say people with tattoos should be able to join the police, while 48 per cent of officers surveyed already had a tattoo.
Simon Kempton is the operational policing lead for the Police Federation, and says that while it is right that there are standards regarding tattoos, they should be judged on a case-by-case basis.
“We acknowledge there have to be standards and that officers can’t have anything about their person, tattoo or otherwise, that might be used to suggest they aren’t impartial,” he said.
“But uniform and appearance policies have to be bought up to date wit the modern world, and people have tattoos. If I am woken up by in the middle of the night by burglars and I call 999, whether the officers that turn up have tattoos or not doesn’t matter to me as long as they are able to do the job well in my hour of need. “
“We acknowledge so many people have tattoos now that they are mainstream. There was a time when having a tattoo would leave you on the fringes of society, but that is certainly not the case any more.”
Simon also believes that all forces should adopt the same policy and say the force by force approach to recruitment standards should be scrapped.
West Midlands Police said no member of the public “should feel uncomfortable, intimidated or threatened by the dress or personal appearance of any police officer or member of police staff”. The force said tattoos should not be “extensive or excessive” but said generally tattoos might be accepted if they were covered.
British Transport Police said its policy “excludes, by and large, any markings that are on the face, visible above the collar line, on the hands or visible below the cuff”, and also said its intention is to ensure officers are approachable to all aspects of society.
Tania Coppola, from West Mercia Police said that tattoos are “not a bar to appointment as a Special Constable or other officer” but that it will depend on their size, nature and location. The force asks to see photos of any tattoos on the face, neck, forearms or hands.
Natalie says most people are interested in her tattoos, but that others stare or shout abuse.
“It’s like a memory, a scrapbook. There’s a lot of reasons behind why I got them,” she says. “I don’t think someone should have to stop doing what they like to do and what makes them who they are just to be able to do a job.”