Sikh community ‘very proud’ NYPD cops can sport beards, turbans for religious purposes

NYPD officers wear turbans outside Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo: Sikh Officers Association/Twitter)
NYPD officers wear turbans outside Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo: Sikh Officers Association/Twitter)

The Sikh Officers Association said it is heartened by the New York Police Department’s recent decision to loosen up its restrictions concerning the facial hair and head coverings of its officers.

Gurvinder Singh, an NYPD officer and the religious fraternal group’s president, said the Sikh community in New York and across the globe is “very, very proud” that officers will be able to grow beards and wear turbans in accordance with their religious tradition.

“As you know, after Sept. 11, there were a lot of issues. There was a lot of hatred toward Sikhism, but now people of New York City and all over the world will be able to see Sikhs wearing their turbans and serving their community. That’s very key because this country has given Sikhs a lot, including me and my family,” Singh told Yahoo News on Thursday.

Following a ceremony for new recruits Wednesday, Police Commissioner James O’Neill also revealed that Sikh officers would be able to wear navy blue turbans adorned with the NYPD badge instead of the standard police cap. He said the changes were made to ensure that the department is as diverse as possible.

“We’ve changed a few things. We’ve changed our beard policy and our head-covering policy,” O’Neill told reporters. “We’ve revised our patrol guide.”

Officers are allowed to grow their facial hair up to 1 millimeter for medical reasons, he said. With the approval of the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of equal employment opportunity, he continued, religious officers can grow their beards out up to a half-inch or wear a department-approved head covering for religious purposes.

NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill speaks to new graduates of the Police Academy during their graduation ceremony in New York on Dec. 28, 2016. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill speaks to new graduates of the Police Academy during their graduation ceremony in New York in December. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)

“Police officers can now wear approved head covering as you can see here to my right and to my left,” said O’Neill, who was flanked by officers sporting the new NYPD turbans. “The head covering must have the cap devices attached to it and they must be navy blue and the hair, your hair must be able to be neatly tied inside the head covering.”

The NYPD said last summer that it would review its no-beard policy after a federal class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of Masood Syed, a Muslim officer who refused to shave his one-inch beard during Ramadan. The lawsuit argued that the prohibition was enforced inconsistently and violated officers’ constitutional rights. At the time, city attorney Michael Fleming said the beard limit was necessary so that gas masks would fit securely on the officer’s face.

The department is now among a handful in North America that allows beards or turbans.

“We’re doing this, we’re making this change to make sure that we allow everyone 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 that we give them that opportunity,” said O’Neill.

The Sikh Officers Association had been working with the NYPD on the new policy for several years, starting with former Commissioner Bill Bratton, who headed the department again after Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014.

According to Singh, about 150 police officers out of 35,000 are Sikh. He hopes the new policy will help change those numbers. He said many Sikh New Yorkers were compelled to serve in law enforcement but pursued other careers because of the beard and turban policy.

New graduates of the NYPD Police Academy participate in a graduation ceremony in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016. The ceremony celebrated 555 new officers who just completed their 6 months training. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)
New graduates of the NYPD Police Academy participate in the graduation ceremony. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)

In his interview with Yahoo News, Singh expressed pride in the contributions that Sikhs have already made to New York and the United States and gratitude that fellow New Yorkers will be able to see Sikhs serving the city.

“Sikhs have served in the U.S. Army since World War II. Now being able to serve the greatest police department in the world and in the most diverse city in the world, this is very much a proud moment for the Sikh community, not only in the States but all over the world,” he said.

Singh said his organization has been receiving requests for comment from news outlets across the globe — including India, Australia and New Zealand — because of NYPD’s widespread renown.

“Now we will proudly serve this city and this country wearing our turbans and keeping our beards,” he reiterated, “so it’s a very, very proud moment for the Sikh community all over the world.”