By David Shortell
NEW YORK (CNN) — 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.
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