Sikhs dispute NYPD policy banning beards, turbans

THE COURIER/Photo by Billy Rennison

With police protecting gurdwaras throughout the city, Sikh worshippers replete with beard and turban will find no officers who look like them.

Police policy prohibits headdresses, preventing many practicing Sikhs from joining the force. Officers in the NYPD must also keep their beards short.

“For this past decade, especially since 9/11, [Sikhs] have been the target of insults, of hate crimes of misunderstandings, of discrimination, even along official channels of government,” said City Comptroller John Liu, who called for the NYPD to amend its policy.

Amardeep Singh, director of programs at the Sikh Coalition, pointed to other police departments around the country that allow officers freedom to wear religious clothing.

“The idea that [Sikhs] can’t be police officers in the neighborhoods that they grew up in New York City is utterly ridiculous,” he said.

Close followers of Sikhism do not trim their hair; the religion also requires members to don a turban.

“Until we have a Sikh employed in the NYPD with a beard and turban, we will not be really understood,” said Harpreet Singh Toor, media consultant for the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill. “It makes us feel like we are less of an American than anyone else.”

Until recently, Sikhs who were MTA employees were required to wear the logo on their headdresses — a policy that ended in June. Soldiers in the U.S. Army have received individual exemptions to wear a turban while serving.

“It’s very important that government itself, particularly law enforcement, is not excluding our community if we’re even going to make a dent in this larger public perception that turban equals terrorist,” said Singh.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said approximately 19 Sikhs currently work for the police department, but for many who steadfastly practice the religion, that’s not an option, Liu said.

“Sikhs are forced to choose between a career and a religion,” he said.

An NYPD spokesperson said Sikhs may wear turbans as long as they are dark blue and fit under the their cap. Beards are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, the spokesperson said.

A bill, sponsored by Councilmember Mark Weprin, was passed by the city council last year that required employers, including the NYPD, to “accommodate religious practice, unless doing so would create undue hardship.”

The bill did not require the department to make any changes, though litigation remains a possibility, Singh said.

Weprin’s brother, Assemblymember David Weprin, also introduced a bill in Albany that would address uniform agencies allowing individuals to wear their religious attire.

Toor said he holds out hope that one day Sikhs will be able to serve and protect the mayor like he is protecting them.

“That’s the America we’re dreaming of,” he said.

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