A Head of Controversy
Rastafarian Officer Fights
for Right to Dreadlocks
Antoine Chambers, a six-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Force, says a department regulation barring dreadlocks tramples on his Rastafarian beliefs. (The Baltimore Sun)
By Bryan Robinson
July 25 — A Rastafarian police officer recently taken off Baltimore’s streets because of his dreadlocks may soon be fighting in court to walk his beat.
A six-year veteran of the force, Antoine Chambers was reassigned from his beat as a uniformed officer to desk duty after telling police officials that he would not obey a new division regulation barring officers from wearing dreadlocks, cornrows and braids.
Chambers argued that cutting his dreadlocks would violate his religious beliefs as a Rastafarian, who grow their hair long and believe their long locks are supported by the Bible.
“They wanted me to cut off my locks completely,” says Chambers. “I told my supervisor that the policy violated my religious and spiritual beliefs and that I would not obey a policy just because the department wanted everyone to look the same.”
Police officials say the department is not violating his religious rights, and that it has a right to establish and enforce a dress code.
After explaining his reasons for refusing to cut his hair, Chambers was told to present a letter from a religious authority to explain the significance of the dreadlocks. When Chambers presented a letter from the Rev. Norman A. Handy Sr., a religious scholar and local councilman, police officials again rejected his argument, and he was restricted to administrative duty.
“I was told it [the letter] still wasn’t acceptable,” Chambers said. “In fact, I was advised that I should cut my hair and then take up the legal matters at a later time, but I said that would contradict my beliefs.”
Chambers claims his superiors never explained the reasons behind the police department’s stance on his locks and claims that the other members of the force — plainclothed and uniformed officers — have hairstyles that could be considered extreme by the department.
“There was no explanation whatsoever,” Chambers said. “Their only explanation was that I was in insubordination. ... While I haven’t seen any officers wearing locks, there are male officers, in a plainclothed capacity, who wear their hair in a pony-tail, and uniformed female officers whose hair goes below the collar.”
Religious Right to Dreadlocks
“Federal, state, and city laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion,” says Nicole Gray Porter, a lawyer for the Amercican Civil Liberties Union who is advising Chambers of his legal options. “Punishing a police officer for his religious practices is clearly illegal.”
Chambers argues that his dreadlocks are well-kept and that he told his supervisors that they were not noticeable underneath his police cap. According to Dwight Sullivan, Chambers’ other legal adviser from the ACLU, the Baltimore Police Department cannot prove that there is any compelling reason that Chambers’ dreadlocks would prevent him from doing his job effectively.
Until June, Sullivan points out, Chambers had been wearing the locks for 18 months without incident and this, he says, proves that cutting his dreadlocks is not a business necessity for Chambers. In addition, Sullivan says, other Baltimore police divisions provide a religious exception provision in their grooming policies that Chambers’ district, the Northern Division, has refused to include in its new grooming policy
In addition, Sullivan argues that the policy is racist.
“Of course, we recognize that people other than African-Americans wear this hairstyle,” Sullivan said. “But it is most commonly associated with African-Americans. I have no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, that if this was a Jewish officer asking for his right to wear a yarmulke on the job the department would honor his religious right. This case is no different. A Rastafarian officer’s religious right to wear his dreadlocks is no different than a Jewish officer’s right to wear his yarmulke.”
Police Dress and Grooming Code
Sean Malone, the legal counsel for the Baltimore Police Department, refuses to discuss the specifics of Chambers’ case because of anticipated litigation. But he stresses that Chambers has not been fired from the police force and is still being paid while being relegated to desk duty.
He maintains that the Baltimore Police Department was not violating Chambers’ religious rights. Like the military, he argued, the department has a right to establish and enforce a dress code for its officers.
“No one is trying to deprive Mr. Chambers of making a living or practicing his faith,” Malone said. “But the department maintains that as a paramilitary organization, it has a right to set up and make its officers adhere to a dress and grooming code, a right that has been upheld in the Supreme Court.”
Malone also claims that the police department has used its general hairstyling guidelines, not the specific new rule started in the Northern Division, in its order instructing Chambers to cut his hair. According to the Baltimore Police Department’s guideline manual, male officers must not “adopt hair styles and hair colors which would likely be regarded as excessive, or otherwise inappropriate to a uniformed appearance.” Hair must also be neatly trimmed on the top and not interfere with the wearing of the police cap.
Tough Case for Police?
Chambers has not sued the Baltimore Police Department — yet. Dwight Sullivan of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is reviewing Chambers’ case and along with the ACLU, will advise him on his legal options. Chambers says he would like the reach an out-of-court resolution with police, as long as it doesn’t trample on his religious beliefs. However, he says he is prepared to sue.
One workplace discrimination expert predicts that the Baltimore Police Department would argue that Chambers’ locks would affect the way he does his job and therefore endanger the people he is supposed to be protecting. The Baltimore Police Department would make Chambers’ personal hairstyle a public safety issue.
“In cases like these, the police department normally claims that the issue is one of public safety, that the long hair would make the officer less effective on the job,” says civil attorney Alan Epstein. “They say, ‘We don’t want our officers looking this way because longer hair becomes an unsafe factor, affects the way the officer does his job and then becomes a public safety issue.’ And the courts have given police latitude in establishing and imposing their dress and grooming codes.”
But Epstein claims that the department’s grooming policy would have a difficult time standing up in court in a civil suit. The department, he says, may have to prove that Chambers’ locks actually affected his performance and provides a danger for himself and other officers. In addition, with the ban specifically focuses on cornrows, dreadlocks and braids, Epstein says that the police department comes dangerously close to not only violating Chambers’ constitutional right to religious freedom but suggesting that “black-looking” hairstyles are dangerous.
“They’re [the police] are going to have a hard time,” Epstein said. “They’re saying, ‘We’re a paramilitary organization that has an image to uphold to the public and we have a right to make people look as crewcut and white as we do.’ It’s going to be hard for them to show how their policy should overcome the constitutional protection provided for religion.”
Gary Simpson, a law professor at Cornell University, said it is common for police departments nationwide to have grooming standards for its officers and that state and federal courts have given departments some leeway in establishing their regulations — as long as they don’t single out a particular group.
Simpson predicts that the Baltimore Police Department will argue that their grooming code is designed to enforce the type of discipline and cohesiveness necessary for officers to do their jobs. In addition, he agreed that the department may have a difficult time proving a compelling reason behind the grooming code that could overcome Chambers’s right to religious freedom and expression.
“I don’t know that they can overcome the religious hurdle,” Simpson said. “I don’t see what compelling reason they can give for why the officer shouldn’t be allowed to wear dreadlocks. I can see the plaintiff’s side arguing that their regulation is supressing his freedom of religion and his freedom of expression. The situations where religious freedoms are allowed to be circumvented in cases like these are very limited and narrow.”
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