NYPD to Start Allowing Beards, Turbans for Religious Officers

by | January 3, 2017

By Nina Agrawal

The New York Police Department will allow officers to begin wearing beards and turbans for religious reasons, in a policy shift intended to help diversify the nation's largest police force.

Commissioner James P. O'Neill announced the change after a graduation ceremony for new police recruits at Madison Square Garden earlier this week.

Under the new policy, officers can maintain a beard up to a half-inch long with the approval of the NYPD deputy commissioner of Equal Employment Opportunity. They can also wear a turban in place of the traditional police cap, so long as it is navy blue, the hat shield is affixed to it and hair is tucked inside.

The NYPD has generally banned beards up to this point, in part because they interfere with the seal of gas masks on officers' faces. But it has previously allowed officers to wear a beard up to 1 millimeter long _ essentially stubble _ for medical or religious reasons.

Sikh officers were formerly only allowed to wear a thin covering known as a patka that fit under a police cap. Jews and Muslims were likewise allowed to wear yarmulkes and hijabs.

O'Neill called the new guidelines "a major change in our uniform policy," but said he thought "it was about time that we did that."

"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," he said in remarks to the media after the ceremony.

Out of the NYPD's 34,000-plus uniformed officers, Sikhs make up an estimated 160, Muslims 900 and Jews 3,000; some members of all three religions wear beards and head coverings as part of their religious practice. Though O'Neill spoke generally about beards and head coverings, his remarks appeared to apply most immediately to Sikh officers, who flanked the commissioner, demonstrating the newly approved headgear as he spoke.

The NYPD now joins a handful of law enforcement agencies in the country to allow facial hair and turbans. The Army allows them as well.

O'Neill said he hoped the change in policy would encourage more diverse candidates to apply.

"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 that we're giving them that opportunity," he said.

The move comes amid a spike in hate crimes toward Muslims following the presidential election of Donald Trump, as well as an effort by the NYPD _ and police departments across the country _ to improve police-community relations.

"New York City especially is a very diverse city," said Lt. Adeel Rana, president of the NYPD Muslim Officers Society. "We need to have a police force ... which is representative of the community that it serves."

Rana said cultural diversity on the force improves officers' ability to deal with a variety of people and problems. "(It) helps a lot when you have individuals working alongside you day in and day out, and you're learning about their culture, about their habits," he said. When presented with a victim from that culture, "you know how to react," Rana said.

Tensions between the police and the city's Muslims flared after Sept. 11, 2001, but have calmed down, Rana said. "Steps like this definitely help because now you see people being embraced and being able to do what they probably dreamt of," he said. "At the same time you don't have to compromise on your faith."

On Dec. 27, the NYPD opened registration for the written police officer exam for the first time in a year and a half. Rana said he believed more members of religious minorities would now apply.

Officer Gurvinder Singh, president of the Sikh Officers Association, which has been in talks with the police department for several years about revising its no-beard policy, agreed. But more than recruiting more diverse members, Singh said the new accommodation would change the way people view the police department. "It will be more positive than negative (now)," Singh said. "It shows the NYPD is allowing religious accommodation and listening to the concerns of the community."

Singh said he believed the change fit well within the NYPD's longer-term goals of establishing better community relations. "Sikhs can also be part of this major change," Singh said. "We will be able to reach our community better because they will be a lot more comfortable."

A police officer himself, Singh said he was conflicted about shaving his beard when he first joined the police force seven years ago, but he couldn't turn down the job opportunity. "Finally to be able to wear the turban and keep the beard is a proud moment for me," he said.

Still, some aren't totally satisfied.

Masood Syed, a Muslim police officer and law clerk who filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the NYPD over its no-beard policy, said he wears his beard longer than 1 inch. "Where does that leave me?" he asked.

Syed said he was stripped of his gun and badge and walked out of police headquarters in front of his colleagues after refusing to comply with an order to shave his beard this past June. "It's very humiliating," he said.

The officer had worn a beard without incident for several years. He was reinstated by an emergency court order the day after his suspension, and the NYPD said it would undertake a review of its no-beard policy. The class-action lawsuit against the agency is still alive.

Syed said he found out about the NYPD policy change through friends who were at the graduation ceremony. He called it "a win" for Muslims, Sikhs, Orthodox Jews and others who wear beards in expression of their faiths.

"Overall I'm happy, I'm glad, I'm excited ... because we made an impact," Syed said.

At the same time, he said the change doesn't go far enough. He said the Quran and the Hadith _ Islamic religious books _ require him to wear a beard as a symbol of his identity and as a practice of emulating the Prophet Muhammad. "Half an inch is stubble, it's hardly a beard," said Syed. "It's not a fashion statement I want to make. I'm wearing the beard as an expression of my religious belief."

Under the new guidelines, Syed said he worried he might again be suspended and humiliated.

"I love doing my job _ I locked up the bad guys, I protected the public. I did everything that a good police officer is required to do," Syed said. "I feel like I should be accepted."

(c)2016 Los Angeles Times