I wrote this story for the Athens Banner-Herald exactly 8 years ago. It's almost hard to believe there actually once was a policy that forbade police officers from sporting beards.
By Joe Johnson
Some Athens-Clarke County police officers recently began wearing seasonal-appropriate facial adornments, while others may have taken to growing beards as a fashion statement.
Whether it's to keep their faces a hair-bit warmer this winter or express their individualism, the officers are taking advantage of a change in the Athens-Clarke County Police Department's grooming policy that for the first time allows them to have beards.
Until the change took effect Jan. 1, the only officers who were allowed to have beard were those in the drug task force or otherwise engaged in undercover operations, where clean-cut appearances might be dead giveaways they were lawmen.
"The one thing I missed when becoming a police officer was having to be clean shaven every day," said Senior Police Officer Jody Thompson, who is 39 and on the job seven years. "I started having a beard when I was in high school, and having one was just part of my life for so long, it kind of grew on me."
When he saw the Dec. 22 memo announcing the facial hair policy change, Thompson said he felt he received an early Christmas present.
"I'm sure I cheered out loud when I saw that," said Sgt. Al Radford, a supervisor in the Forensics Unit. "I've wanted to grow a beard for a long time, like my dad who always had one," the 37-year-old officer said. He explained that his previous employer in sales also forbade employees from growing beards. Radford said he thought his beard was growing in "pretty good, now that the initial itching has subsided." His family likes the new look as well, though he took some ribbing from his 2-year-old son, John.
"Last night he said I needed to get a napkin to wipe my face because it looked like I had dirt on it," Radford said.
For those officers itching to give expression to their inner Grizzly Adams, Santa Claus came in the guise of Police Chief Scott Freeman. Upon becoming the town's new top cop last summer, one of the first things Freeman did was to distribute a survey soliciting the views of members of his department on a variety of issues. "A large number of officers submitted a request for beards to be permitted while wearing the uniform," Freeman said. "In addition to the survey, many officers spoke with me personally about their desire to have a well-groomed beard. After learning of this, I did some research and gave considerable reflection on this change, which involved reflection on the simple question of 'Why not?' "
Freeman said he believes those in law enforcement need to change many of the ways they operate, train, respond and yes, even look.
"Of course, change takes time and we need to carefully examine each change for unintended consequences," he said. "Here, we are talking about our image and trends in the community. Many of our youth are coming up and have beards as a norm. When I was young, I do not recall any of my friends having a beard. That is different now, as you see many people wearing beards."
Having come from the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office, where he served as chief deputy, Freeman said he appreciates the cultural mosaic which is Athens.
"As the chief, I want our police officers to reflect that diversity in every area," he said. "I think that our citizens will be very accepting of officers with beards, as it demonstrates diversity in both thought and appearance. In addition, I want to focus on improving the organizational health of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, and that means empowering all of our personnel with the ability to provide input on the direction of the police department. This is just one example of how that input has made an impact."
Other changes inspired by survey answers include four-day workweeks with 10-hour days, with more possibly on the way.
Thompson remembered how a couple of years ago, the spirits of fellow officers seemed to be lagging for a variety of reasons, rigidity in the department's upper echelon being one of them.
"Morale is much better now," he said. "The chief did that survey and actually listened. How many times does a boss do that?"
Freeman said he has noticed the effect the policy on beards has had on esprit de corps.
"I think for the most part, the morale boost is not about the beard but more about their ability to have a voice in the direction that the department is heading," he said. "The officers have tremendous ideas and we will be working on many of them. The beard symbolizes that their voice is being heard."
Some officers still are not allowed to have beards, including those who are on the Strategic Response Team - the local department's special weapons and tactics unit - cannot have them because they have to be able to wear gas masks in certain situations and a beard might prevent them from having a good seal between mask and face.
Beards continue to be verboten for Honor Guard members.
"There are specific military standards that come with the honor of carrying and displaying our nation's colors," Freeman said. "I want to keep this tradition in place and ensure that our Honor Guard team continues to display the highest standards.
Police officers have been given six weeks to grow beards, at the end of which time a supervisor may order them to shave them off if they have not grown in fully and have left patches of bare skin exposed.
Some older officers already gave up on trying to have a beard, shaving them off when not liking how there were more gray hairs in them than they expected.
"I don't think we are ready to break out the rulers just yet," Freeman said. "I am confident that our police officers will ensure that their beards are well groomed, so the initial guidelines were put into place to establish some limits. I will see how this goes, and will relax them in due time."
Thompson said he's gotten positive feedback on the new look from the public while out performing his duties that it can only benefit the police department's image.
However successful the beard policy may be, the police chief said he will not be taking advantage of it
"I am not sure I would look as good with a beard," Freeman said. "For me personally, the clean-shaven look is what I like and prefer. I will share a secret with you - and the rest of the community now - I don't think I could grow in 2 years what I am seeing on some of the officers in just two weeks."