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NYPD Uniform Change Allows Sikh Officers to Wear Turbans

FILE - U.S. Army Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan speaks to journalists at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, March 22, 2010. Rattan was the first Sikh allowed to complete officer basic training while wearing the traditional turban and full beard since the Army altered its dress code. The New York City police have now adopted a similar dress policy.

The New York Police Department introduced a new dress code this week that allows followers of the Sikh religion to wear turbans and beards while in uniform.

The policy, introduced Wednesday, specifies that Sikhs' head coverings must be navy blue, their hair must be "neatly" placed inside their turbans, and their facial hair may not be longer than half an inch.

"If I've got my numbers right, we have about 160 people from the Sikh community, and hopefully with this change of policy, we'll be able to get more people to apply," Police Commissioner James O'Neill said during a news conference at Madison Square Garden.

Previously, Sikh officers were authorized to wear only patkas under police caps — smaller versions of the adult turbans, often used by young Sikhs.

With the new guidelines, the NYPD joins police departments such as those in Riverside, California, and Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Army, which also allow officers to wear turbans and facial hair for medical or religious reasons.

O'Neill said this was a "major change" and would allow the department to become as "diverse as possible."

"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 to give them that opportunity," he said.

'Proud moment'

Officer Gurvinder Singh, president of the Sikh Officers Association, told VOA the policy change grew out of a continuing conversation with the previous commissioner that had been finalized with O'Neill.

"This is a great and proud moment for the Sikh community … a very great moment," he said.

Singh said Sikhs are not allowed to cut their hair, out of respect for God's creation.

"You must leave this world the same way you came to the world," he said.

Sikhism is the world's fifth-largest religion with more than 25 million followers. Followers believe that fighting against injustice is a sacred duty.

O'Neill said officers who receive medical accommodation can also wear facial hair.

"We continue to have our medical exceptions, and if you have facial hair, you're allowed to grow to 1 millimeter," he said. The limit is a half-inch for those who cite religious reasons and receive approval of department officials, he said.

The department agreed to review its beard guidelines after a Muslim officer filed a federal class-action lawsuit in June. That case is pending.

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    Aline Barros

    Aline Barros is an immigration reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C. Before joining VOA in 2016, Aline worked for the Gazette Newspapers and Channel 21 Montgomery Community Media, both in Montgomery County, Md. She has been published by the Washington Post, G1 Portal Brazilian News, and Fox News Latino. Aline holds a broadcast journalism degree from University of Maryland. Follow her @AlineBarros2.