NYC to pay $17.5M to settle suit over forced removal of religious head coverings during mug shots

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City has agreed to pay $17.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by two Muslim women who were forced to remove their head coverings to be photographed after they were arrested.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in 2018 by Jamilla Clark and Arwa Aziz, two Muslim women who said they felt shamed and exposed when they were forced to remove their hijabs after they were arrested.

“When they forced me to take off my hijab, I felt as if I were naked. I’m not sure if words can capture how exposed and violated I felt,” Clark said in a statement. “I’m so proud today to have played a part in getting justice for thousands of New Yorkers."

Clark was arrested on Jan. 9, 2017 and Aziz was arrested on Aug. 30, 2017.

The lawsuit said police officers threatened to prosecute Clark, who was sobbing after being arrested for violating a bogus protective order filed by her abusive former husband, if she did not remove her head covering,

The lawsuit said Aziz, who also had been arrested because of a bogus protective order, felt broken when her picture was taken where a dozen male police officers and more than 30 male inmates could see her.

City officials initially defended the practice of forcing people to remove head coverings for mug shots, saying the policy balanced respect for religious customs with “the legitimate law enforcement need to take arrest photos.”

But the police department changed the policy in 2020 as part of an initial settlement of the lawsuit and said it would allow arrested people to keep their head coverings on for mug shots with limited exceptions such as if the head covering obscures the person’s facial features.

The financial settlement was filed Friday and requires approval by Judge Analisa Torres of Manhattan federal court.

City law department spokesperson Nick Paolucci said in a statement that the settlement resulted in a positive reform for the police department and "was in the best interest of all parties.”

O. Andrew F. Wilson, a lawyer with Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP who is representing the women along with the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said, “Forcing someone to remove their religious clothing is like a strip search. This substantial settlement recognizes the profound harm to the dignity of those who wear religious head coverings that comes from forced removal."

Paolucci said the proceeds from the settlement will be shared by approximately 4,100 eligible class members.

Wilson said that once the settlement is approved, the funds will be divided equally among everyone who responds by a deadline set by the judge, with a guaranteed minimum payment of $7,824 for each eligible person.