D.C. police Chief Cathy Lanier announced a new policy that allows Sikh officers to wear turbans and other religious items while on the job.
A senior command officer said as far as he knew, there were no observant Sikhs among the department's roughly 3,800 officers. Lanier said, however, that the policy was motivated in part because a Sikh who will graduate from the academy in August and plans to become a reserve officer, has requested the accommodation.
Sikhism was founded in the 15th century and is the world's fifth-largest religion. Observant Sikhs wear turbans and other religious items, and there are about 700,000 adherents to the Sikh faith in the United States, according to the Sikh American Legal Defense Education Fund, or SALDEF.
The D.C. police policy states that Sikh officers can wear turbans that are the same color as the uniform hat they would otherwise be required to wear, with the department badge that is normally on hats pinned to the front of the turban. Male Sikh officers will also be able to wear beards that are neatly kept. Other officers are allowed to grow beards if they get a waiver from the department.
Lanier said that it is hard to find qualified police officers, so it is practical to accommodate candidates who would otherwise be fit for the job.
"This is a common-sense decision," she said.
Assistant Chief Patrick Burke said that it is important for the police force to resemble the community, and that the department hopes to recruit more Sikh officers.
"We look forward to having more Sikh officers come through."
D.C. police will make accommodations as long as they are reasonable and do not impact the officer's ability to do the job, Lanier said.
In the past, Lanier said, D.C. police have made other appearance accommodations, including allowing officers to waive shaving requirements and to wear their hair in dreadlocks. The department also allows people who are in the custody of the police department to wear head coverings for religious reasons.
In other parts of the country, Sikhs have had to fight for religious accommodations, SALDEF Associate Executive Director Jasjit Singh said, noting that nine years ago members of the Sikh community sued New York City to become traffic enforcement officers. In the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, observant Sikhs can serve in the reserves but not as full-time officers.