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NYPD officers may now wear turbans and grow beards for religious reasons, New York City Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill announced Wednesday during the Police Academy graduation at Madison Square Garden.
Officers granted religious accommodations are now able to wear turbans so long as they are navy blue and affixed with the New York Police Department insignia. And Sikh and Muslim officers are set to benefit from the new rule permitting facial hair up to one half-inch in length.
The regulations overhaul marks a significant departure from previous policies barring religious officers from donning turbans and wearing beards more than 1 millimeter long. Before these changes, Sikh officers were permitted only to wear a thin head covering, known as patka, underneath the NYPD uniform hat.
Sikh activists are calling the policy change a “big victory” for their community, whose male members often refrain from cutting their hair or beards as a religious practice.
“We’re very happy right now,” Gurvinder Singh, president of the Sikh Officers Association told HuffPost on Thursday. “It’s a very proud moment for the Sikh community.”
The Sikh Officers Association worked directly with the NYPD to revise the policy, which will affect the roughly 160 Sikh officers that the law enforcement agency employs.
Singh, who has been an NYPD officer for seven years, praised the agency’s leadership for their willingness to communicate with the Sikh community.
“This is the pivotal moment we’ve been waiting for,” Singh told HuffPost. “We’re really happy that the higher ups in the NYPD listened to our concerns. They realized this a diverse city and that a more diverse police force is necessary.”
Harsimran Kaur, legal director for the Sikh Coalition, said she had yet to see the written text of the policy, but acknowledged the announcement appears to be “great, great news.” She told The Huffington Post that she believes newly appointed commissioner O’Neill helped expedite the process.
“I think he’s been empathetic and favorable on this issue which makes a big difference,” she said. “[The changes] show the rest of America that Sikhs are just as much part of the fabric of this country as anyone else.”
Many members and allies of the Sikh community shared their support on social media:
Nearly 12 years ago, the Sikh Coalition filed charges against the NYPD for religious discrimination on behalf of a traffic enforcement agent who was dismissed for refusing to remove his turban. The agent won back his job and was allowed to wear his turban.
The NYPD is now the largest police force in the United States to extend such religious accommodations.
“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,” O’Neill said Wednesday.
Kaur said the new rules mirror policies already adopted by the U.S. Army and other law enforcement agencies in Washington, D.C., and California. And while she said she believes the updated policy should be embraced as progressive, Kaur also recognizes that the NYPD is “just catching up to other equally diverse cosmopolitan cities.”
But Singh said he expects the updated guidelines, which he hopes will be set by next month, will have a “major impact” on NYPD recruitment from the Sikh community.
“We did have a lot of candidates who couldn’t come on the force because they didn’t want to cut their beard or remove their turban,” he said. “Sikhs have suffered so much. Now it’s time for us to serve this country that has given us so much.”