In a victory for religious freedom, the New York Police Department will now allow officers to wear turbans and beards for religious reasons.
"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," NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill said Wednesday, standing in front of NYPD officers wearing the now-allowed navy blue turbans fastened with police brass. "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," O'Neill said, according to CNN.
While the NYPD will still be strict about head coverings, they'll now allow officers to wear a turban if a top department officials signs a religious exemption for them, CNN reports.
According to NBC News, male observant Sikhs traditionally cover their heads with turbans and don't shave their beards for sacred reasons.
In the past, there was less freedom regarding head covering. Previously, Sikhs could wear a patka, which is a smaller wrap often worn by Sikhs, under their official police hats. Now though, as officer Gurvinder Singh put it, "I'll be able to serve with my full turban on. It's a great feeling." Singh, who is the president of the national Sikh Officers Association, added, "There will be a lot more Sikh officers now taking the next exam." O'Neill said the NYPD currently has about 160 Sikh officers.
In addition to the head covering policy change, the NYPD will also allow religious exceptions for beards that are up to half an inch long. In the past, beards could only be up to a millimeter long, because they might interfere with wearing gas masks.
The policy shift comes after Officer Masood Syed, a Muslim legal clerk in the NYPD, filed a case against the NYPD's beard restrictions after he was suspended for refusing to cut his beard, which he had worn for years for religious reasons. Syed was reinstated in June, though his case is still open. Back in 2013, according to Al Jazeera, a Hasidic Jewish probationary officer won a similar case against the department over the same beard policy.
With that said, Syed is hoping for a policy allowing beards up to two inches long—which could meet his religious doctrine—instead of the newly announced half-inch limit. "I'm still disappointed," Syed told CNN. "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?"
The NYPD currently has about 900 Muslims in their force, but for Syed, a 10-year veteran of the NYPD, "It's not just for Muslims." He explained: "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."
According to Al Jazeera, Muslim women in the NYPD have been allowed to wear head scarves for years.