The D.C. police force on Wednesday became the first major metropolitan police department in the country to proactively allow Sikh officers to wear beards and religious items such as turbans while on the job.
The policy change was announced by Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who compared Sikhs to other groups that have struggled for parity in law enforcement.
“I have to remind myself sometimes that in my lifetime women were not allowed to ride in patrol cars along with men, and now I’m chief,” she said at a news conference that was attended by members of the local Sikh community.
Lanier said law enforcement works better when members of the public see themselves mirrored in their local police department, adding: “To me this is a common-sense decision. It is important that we have representation from all of our communities across Washington, D.C.”
The policy change, which requires that turbans match police uniforms and that beards be neatly tied back, also allows Sikhs to carry other “articles of faith” such as steel bracelets around their wrists and small decorative swords under their clothes.
It came about as a Sikh reserve officer prepares to graduate from the police academy. He declined to be interviewed. There are no active-duty Sikh officers working for the D.C. police.
The reserve officer, who was born in Vermont, had previously worked in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where he and another reserve officer lobbied unsuccessfully to change its dress code policy to allow Sikh articles of faith, said Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Washington-based Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF).
Singh hailed the policy change in the District and said he hoped other cities would follow.
“The beauty of this country is it really is founded on the idea of religious liberty,” he said, adding that, with the new rule, Sikhs will no longer have to make a “false choice” between their faith and their livelihood.
In 2004, two Sikh traffic officers in New York City were allowed to wear their articles of faith after filing lawsuits against the police department, according to the New York-based Sikh Coalition, which helped file one of the suits. Sikhs have also sued to serve in the U.S. military wearing their religious articles; three are currently serving, according to the coalition.
There are about 700,000 Sikhs in the United States, and about 25,000 live in the Washington metro area, according to SALDEF.
The Sikh religion originated in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century. Known for a long-standing tradition of military service, Sikhs historically made up a large percentage of the Indian army and have served in the British army and the Royal Canadian mounted police and as bodyguards for the Queen of England, Singh said.
In the United States, Sikhs have faced harassment since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, in part because some have mistaken them for Muslims. A Sikh gas station owner in Arizona was shot to death three days after the terrorist attacks.
In 2002, the Sikh community in Washington began doing cultural sensitivity training with the D.C. police.
The policy change is not the first dress code accommodation for religious reasons, Lanier said, adding that the department has made allowances for dreadlocks and beards. She said the public has supported such changes.
The department has also made accommodations for incarcerated people who wear religious head coverings, she said.