San Jose cop granted religious exception to grow beard, but department has no turban policy

- San Jose police officer Simraptal Brar had been a little reluctant to ask the chief for a special wedding-day request.

But finally the 28-year-old patrol officer found the courage. Could he grow a beard?

As a Sikh man who wanted to observe the religious tradition, he needed an exemption from department policy on facial grooming. And as the old policy stood, a patrol officer could not have a beard.

As it turns out, Police Chief Eddie Garcia revised the policy last week to grant such exemptions. And the answer was yes. The chief will now grant religious exemptions regarding grooming on a case-by-case basis.

“I didn’t really want to make waves,” Brar told KTVU earlier this week, days before his wedding on Friday. He originally had asked to be transferred from patrol to doing detective work, he said, because investigators are given more leeway in how they look. He didn’t need to though, and Garcia’s policy allowed him to still work on the street.

Brar purposely did not want to share too much about his fiancé, a doctor, or share any pictures of her. He described her, as well as his family, as traditional. In the Sikh faith, men should not cut their hair and wear turbans to cover their heads. Those customs are especially significant at weddings.

But while the department in the heart of Silicon Valley aims to be more and inclusive and diverse, Sikh activists point out that having to ask to express one's religious beliefs is overly onerous and that employees shouldn't have to worry that they are "making waves" if they want to honor their religious traditions. They also point out that the San Jose Police Department does not expressly allow turbans, or any religious headgear for that matter, as some departments do in North America. A review of the department's 843-page duty manual does not mention the word "turban,"  "headgear," or "hijab."

"We are encouraged by the chief's acceptance of the beard," said Kavneet Singh, a Danville board member with the national Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "But we look forward to seeing a fully inclusive policy and uniform guide to allow individuals to adhere to their faith and serve freely in law enforcement."

While there is no indication the San Jose police chief would say no if someone wanted to wear a turban, Singh pointed out that just asking for such an exception could be embarrassing.

"The military and police departments have an especially conformative culture," Singh said. "It should be codified that you can wear turbans. Policies are really important to show that departments are fully inclusive and welcoming for all."

In Brar's particular case, the turban is a non-issue. While he will be wearing one at his wedding, he doesn’t wear one at work and hasn't asked to. 

Police departments routinely ban beards for safety reasons, such as the need to ensure that an officer can be fitted for a gas mask, although a few departments have been creative in this manner by allowing Sikh men to tie their beards in knots under their chins. 

Only a few police departments in the country allow turbans. Sikh police officers in Washington, D.C. could wear turbans and were allowed to tie their beards in a knot as far back as 2012. The Harris County Sheriff in Texas granted the ability to wear turbans to Sikh deputies on patrol in 2015. Police in Riverside, Calif. are allowed to wear turbans, and last year, the New York Police Department allowed Sikhs to wear turbans and beards on duty. The turbans are navy blue and bear the NYPD insignia. Before, Sikh officer had to fit their turbans, or rather, thinner patkas, under their department-issued caps. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have permitted turbans and bears since the 1990s. Last year, the Mounties allowed Muslim women to wear hijabs.

Spokesman Garcia said that currently, no officer in San Jose has asked to wear a turban or hijab, the head covering wore by devout Muslim women.  If officers wanted to wear such a religious item, they would have to ask the chief, he said. The chief was not immediately available this week to say if their wishes would be granted, or explain why department policy does not allow for a blanket wearing of such religious headgear. 

 

 

The revised Nov. 20 San Jose police policy touts that the department is “committed to maintaining a diverse workforce, which reflects the community it serves….The department is committed to working with members of various religious faiths by extending consideration on a case-by-case basis from exemptions to the department’s grooming standards and uniform policy to provide religious accommodation while on duty.” 

And just because there is no policy, doesn't mean an officer can't wear a turban. Individual departments make individual decisions.

For example in 2014, Officer Jaskirat Singh was allowed to wear a turban while working for the Milpitas police, even though that department doesn't have a specific turban policy. He was the only known turbaned officer at the time for the department.

For his part, Brar is quite happy that he got to grow a beard for his happy occasion. As for his future facial hair, he plans to go back to clean-shaven once he is a married man. 

“I personally plan to shave again,” he said.
 

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