|© Spencer Platt Police officers at the 44th Precinct in the Bronx stand at Roll Call on June 10, 2015 in New York City.|
Until now, the department has prohibited non-uniform headwear and facial hair, though some cops were allowed to sport one-millimeter beards – otherwise known as a five o’clock shadows – for religious or “dermatological” reasons. The restrictions posed a conflict for the force’s observant Muslims, whose faith calls for longer beards, and Sikhs, who are supposed to wear both beards and long hair under a turban. (Per the New York Times, some Sikh cops have managed to follow both their religion and NYPD policy by “stuffing their unshorn hair into turbans that fit under department-issued caps,” which doesn’t sound very comfortable.) But under the new rules, those who are given a religious accommodation by the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office will be able let their beards grow up to half an inch. The office can also grant cops permission to swap their police hat for a navy blue turban emblazoned with a NYPD shield.
“We want to make the NYPD as diverse as possible and I think this is going to go a long way to help us with that,” said O’Neill. The department currently has around 1,000 Muslim officers and 150 Sikhs.
NYPD changes policy, will allow officers to wear turbans
Sikh officers can now wear full turbans in the New York Police Department.
NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill announced the policy change Wednesday, flanked by officers in navy blue turbans fastened with police brass.
"We want to make the NYPD as diverse as possible, and I think this is going to go a long way to help us with that," O'Neill said.
"It's a major change in our uniform policy, so we had to go about it carefully. And now I have the opportunity to make the change, and I thought it was about time that we did that."
While the NYPD patrol guide maintains a strict policy regarding head coverings, officers will now be able to wear turbans with a religious exemption signed by top department officials, O'Neill said.
There are about 160 Sikh officers in the NYPD, the commissioner said.
Before the policy change, Sikh officers could wear a smaller wrap, known as a patka, beneath their official police cap, said Gurvinder Singh, an NYPD officer and president of the national Sikh Officers Association.
"Now I'll be able to serve with my full turban on. It's a great feeling," he said.
"There will be a lot more Sikh officers now taking the next exam."
Facial hair still an issue
The NYPD also announced Wednesday a religious accommodation allowing for officers to, with approval, grow a beard up to half an inch long. The previous policy had allowed for beards of up to a millimeter in length.
Some leaders in the Sikh community applauded the policy change on turbans, but said the NYPD needed to go further with the policy on facial hair.
"While it's definitely a great step, we look forward to reviewing the policy in depth and ensuring that Sikhs can serve with their turban and beards intact and with no limitations or restrictions to either," said Kavneet Singh, a board member of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The turban and the practice of keeping a beard or unshorn hair, known as kesh, are among the articles of faith maintained by Sikhs.
Over the summer, the NYPD was sued by a Muslim officer, Masood Syed, who said he was suspended, stripped of his badge and gun for wearing a beard longer than protocol.
Syed, who lives in Queens, was later reinstated after receiving a temporary restraining order from a Manhattan federal judge, though his case remains open. The class-action suit calls the limitation unconstitutional and Syed is seeking a policy allowing for a 2-inch beard -- long enough to comply with religious doctrine.
In an interview, Syed called Wednesday's announcement "arbitrary" and a "disappointment."
"I'm still disappointed. If they're saying now that the policy is half an inch and I'm walking around in police headquarters with the top brass, walking around with a beard that's 1 1/2 to 2 inches, where does that leave me? Am I going to be suspended again? Am I going to be walked out of the building again?" Syed said.
Syed, a lawyer and 10-year veteran of the NYPD, added: "It's not just for Muslims. We have Sikh officers, we have Jewish officers, we have Israelite officers, who all believe that the beard length should be longer than half an inch, who have all approached me and asked me to represent them and submitted their name in support of this policy. For me, it's important because of my faith and my religion, but it's also important for me to represent those other officers."
The NYPD would not comment Wednesday evening on the ongoing lawsuit.
Similar police policies rare
Only about a half dozen police forces across the country have explicit accommodations to allow for Sikhs to serve with a turban and beard, according to SALDEF.
Washington DC's Metropolitan Police Department became the first major force in the country to enact such a policy in 2012, though no Sikhs currently serve there, Singh said.
The NYPD's new policy follows similar ones in Harris County, Texas -- which includes the city of Houston -- and Riverside, California. Singh said both those forces' policies go further than the NYPD's to allow for full beards.
The NYPD had previously prohibited beards because they interfere with certain gas masks.
Huge and diverse police department
As the largest police force in the country, the NYPD has long prided itself on being one of the most diverse.
About 900 Muslim Americans serve in the NYPD, city officials have said. Female Muslim officers have for years been able to receive a religious exemption allowing them to wear head scarves, according to Lt. Adeel Rana, president of the NYPD's Muslim Officers Society.
The policy announcement Wednesday followed a graduation ceremony held at Madison Square Garden that saw over 550 men and women sworn in as New York City police officers.
Of the graduating class, 48% of the officers are white, 26% Hispanic, 12% black, and more than 13% Asian, police said.
Muslim and Sikh NYPD officers can now wear beards and turbans
DECEMBER 29, 2016 —Muslim and Sikh officers in the New York Police Department will be allowed to grow out their beards and wear turbans while in uniform, the NYPD announced on Wednesday.
Under the new policy, outlined by NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill, officers who are granted a religious accommodation from the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office will be able to grow beards that extend up to half an inch from the face, and may also wear a blue turban with a hat shield in lieu of a traditional police hat. Previously, officers with a medical or religious accommodation were permitted to grow a beard no longer than one millimeter in length, a policy that came under review after a Muslim officer filed a federal class-action lawsuit in June.
"We’re making this change to make sure that we allow everybody in New York City that wants to apply and have the opportunity to work in the greatest police department in the nation, to make sure we give them that opportunity," Commissioner O'Neill said on Wednesday in explanation of the revised rules, as reported by The New York Times.
The decision to allow beards and turbans comes at a time when many US Muslims and Sikhs report feeling unsafe, following a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 and a reported surge in anti-Muslim crimes and rhetoric linked to the 2016 presidential election. There has similarly been an increase in hate crimes and discrimination against Sikhs in the years since Sept. 11, 2001, members of the religious community say, as many Americans have difficulty distinguishing between different types of religious headgear.
"This is happening because the Sikh culture is poorly understood by most people...especially because our fear is making us blind to differences amongst people who look different than we do," psychiatrist Carole Lieberman told The Christian Science Monitor last year. "All strangers feel threatening to us because, as terrorism crosses from foreign countries to America, we are becoming more overwhelmed with fear. People are so angry that the American way of life is being disturbed, that to some, it feels good to commit a hate crime – even if they have mistaken the target of their hate."
While some Muslim women have begun to leave their hijabs at home out of fear of attracting negative public attention, other members of the Sikh and Muslim communities say it's increasingly important for vulnerable religious groups to stand up for their religious identities, as Gloria Goodale reported for the Monitor :
There are signs that the [Sikh] community is beginning to assert its distinct identity and rights. Hapreet Singh Saini, who lost his mother in the mass shooting in Oak Creek, Wis., in 2012 when he was 18, was the first Sikh American to testify in front of Congress after the tragedy. He implored Congress to recognize her religious identity, because “she deserves her rights,” he says.
In addition, while some Sikhs have decided to publicly play down their religious affiliation, earlier this month the US Army issued the first accommodation for a Sikh soldier in a combat position. It will allow Capt. Simratpal Singh to temporarily grow out his beard and wear a turban – actions that have historically been at odds with the military’s strict grooming standards.
Last year, a Sikh accountant won a settlement from the federal government that would allow her to bring her kirpan, a small, sheathed ceremonial dagger to be worn at all times as an article of faith, to work at federal buildings. As a result of her case, the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service set up a procedure by which Sikhs could apply for religious accommodations to carry their kirpans into federal buildings. DHS admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.
In permitting Sikh and Muslim officers to don turbans and grow out their beards, the NYPD joins a small number of police departments with similar policies, including agencies in Washington, D.C., and Riverside, Calif.
There have also been efforts to increase inclusiveness in the US Army. In April, four Sikh soldiers were granted long-term religious accommodations to wear beards and turbans, more than doubling the number of Sikhs who had been previously granted such accommodations.
While supporters applauded the move, they also noted that the current process of applying for religious accommodations is quite laborious and may discourage young religious minorities from serving in the military.
"I think that’s a shame, because that situation basically pushes away young, qualified candidates, be it from the Sikh religion, or from the Muslim religion, or Buddhist," Maj. Kamal Kalsi, the first Sikh to be granted a religious accommodation by the Army in nearly a generation, told the Monitor. "If we want a modern progressive military that looks like America, we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that not all Americans look alike."
Officer Gurvinder Singh, the president of the Sikh Officers Association, says he hopes the new NYPD policy will encourage more Sikhs to sign up for the police force and lead to greater diversity.
"A lot of their kids wanted to join, but they couldn’t," he told The New York Times. "And now they can. This country has given us a lot, and now we want to pay it back."