Fla. jail's tattoo database provides agencies more tools to ID

The log of photos is helpful to LEOs in the field because it's another tool they can use to identify dangerous suspects


Tony Holt
The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

VALUSIA COUNTY, Fla. — Tattoos tell a unique story.

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said he has seen tattoos reveal everything from familial ties to someone's hatred of law enforcement.

Authorities say sometimes tattoos tell a story or offer a warning or point of view law enforcement officers will want to know about. [Volusia County]
Authorities say sometimes tattoos tell a story or offer a warning or point of view law enforcement officers will want to know about. [Volusia County]

He remembers serving a search warrant on a guy who had a portrait of a tree painted on his back — with a sheriff's deputy hanging from one of the branches.

"If anyone else ever serves a search warrant on that guy again, they're going to want to know about that tattoo," Chitwood said.

It took years longer than Chitwood would've preferred, but the Volusia County Branch Jail has implemented a tattoo database, which contains thousands of images of ink signatures from inmates. The log of photos is helpful to law enforcement officers in the field because it is another tool they can use to identify a dangerous suspect, authorities said.

Such a database can provide all sorts of intelligence to police agencies. If a person on a surveillance video has a neck tattoo, it could be cross-checked through the database and result in a match — and subsequently an arrest warrant.

"A tattoo can represent the lifestyle of a particular person," said Mark Flowers, director of the Volusia jail. "It can be anything from a simple 'Mom' tattoo on someone's arm to a lavish portrait. A tattoo artist's ability is the limit.

"For some people, the body is a canvas," he continued. "Sometimes the only person who knows what they mean is the person wearing them."

The database, implemented last year, has already come in handy for local law enforcement.

In April, Phillip T. Marsh led deputies on a chase after carjacking a woman in a Deltona neighborhood, according to the Sheriff's Office. Deputies saw him in the stolen vehicle driving on a rural highway and eventually they cornered him near DeLand as he attempted to steal another vehicle. Marsh opened fire on deputies and wounded one before being shot himself.

Marsh was identified at the scene based on a unique tattoo he had on his body, one that was logged into the jail's database, Flowers said.

Whenever an inmate is processed into the jail and has his or her mug shot taken, any visible tattoos are also photographed. They are brought into a separate room where an intake officer will use a tablet and take close-up images of the tattoo.

One of the reasons for the reluctance in starting a tattoo database was the fear of privacy violations. To that, Chitwood said, "There is no privacy in jail."

Flowers, as well as Lt. Mike Gallenkamp, the investigations supervisor at the jail, insists that no one's privacy rights are violated during the intake process.

"We are not asking women to expose themselves or men to expose (themselves) to show us their tattoos," Gallenkamp said.

In case someone does have a tattoo in a private area, that information will be typed into the database, but no photos are taken, Flowers said.

"We treat everyone with dignity and respect," he said. "The intent is never to embellish or embarrass. It's about public safety. That's our major concern."

In Flagler County, inmates have their tattoos photographed when they are booked and those photos are attached to the booking report of the inmate, but there is no formal tattoo database at the Sheriff Perry Hall Inmate Detention Facility, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Brittany Kershaw said.

There are numerous examples of inmates who are easy to recognize simply by the words and images they have painted on their bodies.

One convicted felon Flowers encountered during his career had the words "F--- You" tattooed on his eyelids. One eyelid had the four-letter word while the other had the three-letter word.

"Every time he blinked, he was telling you something," Flowers said.

Chitwood recalled a time when an inmate got a tattoo while awaiting trial for murder. Detectives had no success getting him to make any kind of admission statements because he invoked his Miranda rights. However, the defendant couldn't resist getting a tattoo that had a hidden meaning, one that incriminated him in the murder.

"The guy that we locked up kept denying, denying, denying," Chitwood said. "Then he gets a tattoo and that was his admission."

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©2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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