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It's an old problem with a new twist.

For years, the Pennsylvania Game and Fish and Boat Commissions have struggled to find and keep deputy conservation officers. They're part-timers who help enforce wildlife and fish law, stock trout and pheasants, do public outreach and more.

At the peak in the 1980s, the Game Commission had about 1,200 deputies. Today, it's got about 350. The Fish and Boat Commission once had 400. Now, it's got about 80.

A number of factors account for the decline, from expense — deputies provide their own gear, from firearms to handcuffs — to the time required for training to fewer people being interested in volunteering, said Corey Britcher, chief of the Fish and Boat Commission's bureau of law enforcement.

And, now, body art can be added to the list.

The Game Commission, for example, has in recent years had to turn away deputy candidates because they sported too much ink, said Tom Grohol, head of its bureau of law enforcement.

More common issue: It's an issue that figures to only become more common.

A 2012 Harris poll found that about 21 percent of American adults have tattoos. The percentage was closer to 40 among those ages 18-29.

“The tattoo issue with law enforcement today is a big one. Law enforcement agencies around the country are struggling with it,” Grohol said.

The question, he said, is whether tattoos erode public confidence in an officer or the law enforcement agency he or she represents.

Some agencies prohibit them outright.

The Pennsylvania State Police, for example, won't accept anyone for training who has a tattoo on the head, neck, forearm or anywhere else “below where a short-sleeved shirt would be,” said spokesman Adam Reed. Officers already on the job have to go through a review process before they can get one, he added.

Others treat them differently.

Case-by-case basis: At the Fish and Boat Commission — where a number of full-time officers, including some on the “command staff,” meaning those in leadership positions — sport visible tattoos, the agency looks at candidates for full- or part-time positions with body art on a “case-by-case” basis, Britcher said.

That's almost a necessity, he added. Britcher said many officers come from military backgrounds, and “everyone coming out of the military these days has some sort of body art.”

The Game Commission developed a formal tattoo policy just a few years ago because of the preponderance of people with them. It's fairly detailed, Grohol said, but basically prohibits any art that is “excessive or offensive.”

“The head and neck, that's obvious. No matter what you have, if you have anything up in that area, we say no,” Grohol said.

Sleeves, or tattoos that cover the entire arm from shoulder to wrist, also eliminate people from serving as a deputy, as do tattoos that are vulgar or explicit, racist, morally objectionable and sexually explicit, among other things, he added.

Debating the issue: Whether the time to relax those rules is at hand is something the commission has been debating.

In the past it's considered — and always rejected — measures such as allowing visible tattoos, but requiring officers to wear long sleeves at all times, or even skin-colored sleeves under a short-sleeved shirt.

More recently, as part of a larger effort to recruit more deputy officers, it formed a deputy review committee. One of the subjects debated was the tattoo policy.

The committee — made up of Game Commissioners, law enforcement staff, Pat Anderson, director of the southwest region office, and others — split 50/50 on the issue, Grohol said.

“As we move forward, I think there may be more acceptance, but I'm not sure we're going to go down that road right now,” he said.

Bob Frye is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via @bobfryeoutdoors.

©2016 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

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