When Sgt. Nick Chavez saw the email, he thought it was an April Fools’ Day joke.
That’s because the email, which said the Santa Fe Police Department was initiating a pilot program allowing uniformed officers to grow facial hair, was sent on April 1.
“I said, ‘Is this for real?’ ” recalled Chavez, a 12-year veteran of the force who is now, by the way, growing a beard and mustache.
He’s not alone. During a recent afternoon briefing session at the police department station on Camino Entrada, several of the uniformed officers were sporting full beards or growing beards, goatees and mustaches.
“It’s been part of my identity,” said Officer Charles Ovalle, who has served with the department for 2½ years and who almost didn’t take the job when he was told he would have to shave his beard. He’d sported one for 15 years up to that point.
He did not shave until the night before the day he began working as a police officer — Nov. 4, 2019.
It was a tough personal call, he said. His wife and kids said they didn’t recognize him after he shaved.
Now, Ovalle said, his 10-year-old son “feels like he has his daddy back.”
The temporary order, originally set to expire at the end of June, requires the officers to keep their facial hair professionally groomed and restricts beard growth to a quarter-inch.
Santa Fe Police Chief Paul Joye said after he was appointed interim chief in December, he met with officers and asked them for ideas to improve the work environment. He wrote in an email several officers approached him to ask if he could consider allowing facial hair.
He said he met with his deputy chiefs to look at how other law enforcement agencies around the country were handling the matter and decided to approve a 90-day order allowing the growth of facial hair.
The officers testing the new policy — several said they estimate 75 percent of the uniformed personnel in the department are trying it out — all spoke to the power of beards, pointing to their ability to build confidence, create a new identity and bring a more personable face to the by-the-statute nature of their jobs.
“I think it is something that allows officers to exercise more of their human side,” Chavez said.
It’s also a morale-builder, said Gerald Lovato, a senior officer with 19 years of experience in law enforcement.
He said he has seen officers with beards walking about “with a pep in their step.”
At 41, the beard Lovato is growing has given him enough confidence to poke fun at his new image.
“I look like I’m ready for retirement,” he said before the afternoon briefing began. He noted he’s acquired a nickname — “Salt and Pepper” — among his colleagues.
Beards can often be associated with knowledge and wisdom, said Officer Oscar Holguin, who has been with the department five years.
He said his new look makes him look older, more mature.
When you think about it, some pretty famous men remain renowned for them — Abraham Lincoln, Santa Claus and Zeus come to mind, as do ancient scholars like Socrates. (Whether these fellows had regular access to shaving utensils, or were members of the Dollar Shave Club, is another matter.)
While beards may come and go with current fashion trends, a recent Modern Gentleman article said 33 percent of American men and 55 percent of men worldwide have some sort of facial hair. That story also said 79.6 percent of men grow beards said they consider themselves attractive.
The story also said women looking for a casual fling find men with at least a light stubble of facial hair attractive — but that issue did not come up during the recent interview with Santa Fe police officers.
Reports and studies — many conducted by companies and organizations that include the word “beard” in their title — show many private and public entities still prohibit beard growth. In some cases, as in the food service industry, that might make sanitary sense, those reports say.
Those articles emphasize employers have the right to set their own requirements for dress code and personal appearance as part of hiring practices.
Some long-term policies on prohibiting facial hair remain, but recent reports indicate others may change over time. In the latter third of the 20th century, the Cincinnati Reds baseball team was renowned (or reviled) for its no-beard policy, one the New York Yankees continue. Canada recently allowed its military personnel to grow facial hair.
According to a state Department of Public Safety policies and procedures handbook, New Mexico State Police officers must be “clean-shaven” on duty, which means they must remove hair that, if allowed to grow, would create a beard, goatee or mustache.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office prohibits beard growth for uniformed officers unless they have a medical or dermatological condition that would allow one, said spokesman Juan Ríos. Officers are allowed to grow mustaches if they keep them trimmed and groomed, he said.
The Santa Fe Police Department does allow plainclothes detectives and undercover officers to sport facial hair if their supervisors approve it. But the allowance for beards for uniformed officers is new.
The new order restricts handlebar mustaches and says officers must grow a beard and mustache together if they want to go the facial hair route. It also requires them to keep an electric razor on hand in case they are asked to remove the hair on the spot.
Will the initiative last beyond the 90-day trial period? Joye wrote in an email Thursday he plans to extend the evaluation period for the program another 90 days.
“The feedback so far from the public has been mostly positive, and the officers participating seem to be happy with the change,” he wrote.
Lovato said officers growing beards want to keep the policy going and are thus policing the grooming practices of their fellow facial shrub growers to ensure they are keeping their whiskers neat.
“We’re like, ‘Don’t mess this up or they will take it away,’ ” he said.
Chavez said he hopes the temporary policy becomes permanent, in part because it gives officers a more … well, intimidating look — if the uniform, badge and gun don’t already do the trick.
“I personally would not mess with a cop with a beard,” he said. “They look tougher.”
Holguin agreed as he took a glance at one of his fellow officers.
“Look at him,” he said, pointing to Ovalle. “He looks like Chuck Norris.”
He kind of does.