By ASHLEY SOUTHALL
DEC. 28, 2016
Photo: Officer Gurvinder Singh, the president of the Sikh Officers Association, which has about 150 members, said the change would help the New York Police Department’s efforts to recruit a more diverse force. Credit Dave Sanders for The New York Times
In a nod to the growing number of South Asian Sikhs in New York City, the Police Department said on Wednesday that it would allow officers who belong to the religion to wear beards and turbans while in uniform — as long as the turbans are blue.
The decision puts the nation’s largest police force among a small group of law enforcement agencies like those of Washington, D.C., and Riverside, Calif., as well as the United States Army, that allow members to have facial hair and wear turbans, often as a religious exception. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has allowed turbans and beards since the 1990s, and began permitting hijabs this year.
According to the patrol guide of the New York Police Department, officers are prohibited from having beards and nonuniform headdresses, but exceptions can be made for officers who receive a medical or religious accommodation to wear facial hair up to one millimeter in length, essentially stubble.
While the department has become more diverse, many activists say the policies have hurt the agency’s goal of being more inclusive. And the department agreed to review its beard guidelines after a Muslim officer filed a federal class-action lawsuit in June. That case is pending.
Under the revised policy, Commissioner James P. O’Neill said on Wednesday, officers who are granted a religious accommodation from the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office will be allowed to have beards that extend up to one-half inch from the face. The officers may also wear turbans — with a hat shield it affixed to it — in place of the traditional police cap.
Photo: New recruits of the New York Police Department on Wednesday celebrated their graduation from the Police Academy. Credit Seth Wenig/Associated Press
“We’re making this change to make sure that we allow everybody 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 we give them that opportunity,” the commissioner said.
Groups representing Sikh and Muslim officers within the department said members who were previously granted religious accommodations are already allowed to take advantage of the revised policies, which are expected to be finalized next month. The Muslim Officers Society and the newer Sikh Officers Association, which have more than 1,100 members combined, had been pushing for the changes.
The accommodations are expected to provide relief for officers whose religious expressions clashed with those from the Police Department. . For Sikhs, abiding by the standards in the patrol guide has meant shaving the beards their faith requires to keep uncut, and stuffing their unshorn hair into turbans that fit under department-issued caps.
Officer Gurvinder Singh, the president of the Sikh Officers Association, which has about 150 members, said the change would help the department’s efforts to recruit a more diverse force. He predicted that more Sikh candidates would sign up to take the police exam in January, citing phone calls he had received from religious and community leaders after the announcement.
“A lot of their kids wanted to join, but they couldn’t,” he said. “And now they can. This country has given us a lot, and now we want to pay it back.”
Photo: Jagjeet Singh, with his son Prabhden, 6, said that the Police Department’s policy change on beards and turbans will encourage people to ask Sikh officers about their heritage. Credit Dave Sanders for The New York Times
Mr. O’Neill announced the revised policies on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, where 557 recruits graduated from the Police Academy. Thirty-three of those graduates are Muslims and two are Sikhs, according to the Police Department.
In the fall, the Police Department granted two Sikh recruits religious accommodations that allowed them to grow beards extending up to half an inch from their faces while at the academy, according to the Sikh Coalition, a Sikh civil rights organization which represents one of the officers. Their client did not request or receive an accommodation for the turban, according to the coalition’s legal director, Harsimran Kaur, who applauded the revisions.
“The N.Y.P.D.’s refusal to hire turbaned and bearded Sikhs allows other employers to justify refusing to hire Sikhs,” she said. “If the N.Y.P.D.’s new policy indeed allows for Sikhs to maintain unshorn beards and turbans, that sends a strong message that Sikhs are part of the mainstream fabric of America.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Prabhden Singh, 6, his hair wrapped in an indigo turban, skipped around outside the Gurdwara Sikh Cultural Society building in Richmond Hill, Queens. His father, Jagjeet Singh, 32, a black turban over his hair and thick beard covering his chin, said the department’s policy change was “a great thing” for the Sikh community.
Mr. Singh, who drives a taxi, said people often asked about his turban and his heritage — many asked if he was Muslim. “I like to explain who I am, and where we are from,” he said, adding that he enjoyed explaining the history of the turban to those unfamiliar with the culture.
And the policy change, Mr. Singh said, will create an opportunity for people to ask police officers about their Sikh heritage as well. Most people, he added, simply do not know much about the Sikh culture.
Correction: December 28, 2016
An earlier version of this article misidentified the religious accommodation granted by the New York Police Department to two Sikh recruits. At the academy, the recruits could grow beards, not wear turbans. The article also misidentified an accommodation that was neither requested nor received by one of the recruits. It was to wear a turban, not to grow a beard.