The NYPD’s Discrimination Problem

The NYPD’s no-turban policy unwittingly empowers the bigots who attacked three Sikh Americans on the streets of New York.

New York City is reeling from back-to-back hate crimes in recent weeks against its Sikh community.

In late July, Sandeep Singh — a Sikh father and business owner — was called a “terrorist” and told to go back to his country by a driver in a pickup truck. When Singh protested, the driver ran him over and dragged his body under the vehicle for several feet on a public street in Queens. While the driver was arrested, Singh is still recovering at home from his grievous injuries, and doctors have deemed his recovery a “miracle.”

The Sikh-American community absorbed the shock of this brutal attack almost two years to the day that a neo-Nazi massacred six worshippers and permanently injured several others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. On the day of the anniversary, over a hundred Sikhs in Queens organized a public rally to demand more vigorous action from the NYPD.

On August 7, just two days after the rally, Dr. Jaspreet Singh Batra — a Sikh medical researcher — was attacked on a public street on Roosevelt Island. Much like Dr. Prabhjot Singh — a Columbia University professor who was attacked and injured in Harlem nearly one year ago — Dr. Batra’s attackers called him “Osama bin Laden,” told him to go back to his country, and punched him in the face and neck in front of his elderly mother. Dr. Batra was quickly treated and released from a local hospital, but most of his attackers remain at large.

[T]he irony is that the New York City Police Department also discriminates against people with turbans.

Although these three men were attacked because of their turbans and compelled to turn to local law enforcement for assistance, the irony is that the New York City Police Department also discriminates against people with turbans. The NYPD currently does not allow Sikhs to wear turbans freely while serving on the force, and according to an NYPD statement issued last week, Sikhs are only able to serve if they were willing to wear a hat over their turbans.

“There is a process in place within the New York City Police Department that provides reasonable accommodations for religious purposes,” the statement read. “The policy allows Sikh members of the department to wear turbans that fit underneath department headgear, and to grow beards to be kept at a certain length.”

For a practicing Sikh, this accommodation is neither reasonable nor acceptable. Sikhs have worn turbans since the religion’s formative moments as public declarations of commitment to core tenets of the faith — love, service, spirituality, and equality. Both historical and legal traditions mandate that Sikhs embrace the turban as part of a shared identity, and notably for the NYPD, early manuscripts on Sikh jurisprudence and discipline explicitly asks devotees to abstain from wearing a cap over the turban.

This situation is particularly unfortunate given the long history of Sikhs serving in law enforcement around the world.

Given the integral role of the turban within the Sikh tradition, as well as the directive against wearing a hat over the turban, the NYPD’s current stance is unacceptable to Sikh Americans and champions of religious liberty.

Not only does the NYPD’s current stance fail to provide a sufficient accommodation for Sikh officers, but it also effectively bars observant Sikhs from seriously entertaining any thought of joining the force. This situation is particularly unfortunate given the long history of Sikhs serving in law enforcement around the world. It is also ironic given that the Sikh identity represents so many of the same values as the NYPD uniform — service, compassion, and justice.

A hat in lieu of a turban is unacceptable in the way that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was unacceptable to members of the LGBT community who wanted to openly serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. In both cases, we are dealing with a government policy that forces individuals to hide their identities in deference to majoritarian stereotypes. Our constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and equal opportunity are designed to protect minorities from these stereotypes. Upholding these constitutional ideals is inextricably tied to protecting the rights of minorities.

The NYPD’s no-turban policy reflects a narrow view of uniformity, one that insists on sameness. It is uncontroversial for police departments to promote uniformity by regulating the appearance of their officers, but these regulations must also account for the diversity of American society, which includes Sikh Americans.

Minorities in the United States should not be trampled under majority preferences.

Consider this thought experiment: instead of requiring all officers to wear hats, the NYPD can easily promote uniformity by requiring all of its officers to wear turbans. The agency’s presumable unwillingness to do so can only be based on majority preferences about what Americans should look like. After all, most American police officers are not Sikhs and would probably prefer to wear a hat instead of a turban. If the preferences of non-Sikh officers are taken into account in this situation, as they should, an equal degree of respect should be given to the religious requirements of Sikh officers, who are religiously required to wear a turban instead of a hat. Minorities in the United States should not be trampled under majority preferences.

As it turns out, forcing a Sikh to hide his or her turban perpetuates the myth that turbans are un-American. By asking Sikhs to conceal their religious identity, the NYPD is unwittingly honoring and empowering the bigots who attacked Sandeep, Dr. Batra, and Dr. Singh on the streets of New York City. When someone on the street tells a Sikh to go back to his country, the epithet can be dismissed as the ravings of an ignorant fool; but when the NYPD enforces a policy that effectively tells Sikhs that they don’t belong in this country, the stakes are much higher. Government agencies should not be giving bigots a green light to discriminate against minorities.

If minority rights matter to the NYPD, the agency can adopt a more balanced view of uniformity that allows Sikhs to wear turbans that match the color and size of department hats. As it turns out, this balanced approach has been embraced by major police departments throughout the world, including London, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. What matters ultimately is whether a police officer can competently do his or her job, and Sikh police officers have clearly been able to excel at their jobs in major metropolitan cities while wearing their turbans.

The NYPD serves the nation’s largest and most diverse city, and it is time for its leaders to protect religious liberty for turbaned Sikh officers. The NYPD cannot protect Sikhs from bias if it is perpetuating anti-Sikh bias.

Image via Shutterstock.

  • Himmat Singh

    Does the NYPD state why they mandate Sikh policemen to wear a helmet? Is this requirement also there for all other policemen (and policewomen) serving in the force?

    I can understand that if for example, a Sikh policeman is required to wear a helmet if he is in a full riot gear, or in SWAT gear. I will not argue that at all. But if it is for a desk job, or a regular patrol job, then like basically every other police force in the world the NYPD should allow turbans. Matching colors with a crest mounted in front of the turban.

    Might I ask also, what do they mean by “to grow beards to be kept at a certain length”? If you tie you beard, will they still check its length?