By Brett Gillin
In a landmark decision involving both police uniforms and the freedom of religious expression in the law enforcement community, the sheriff of greater Houston, Texas, has announced that officers will now be permitted to wear beards and turbans while on patrol. The decision, which is being praised by many in the community, is not without detractors though. More interestingly, it brings a juxtaposition to a recent ruling in Wyoming, where a longtime deputy retired after being told his cowboy hat and boots would no longer be allowed while he was on patrol.
Sheriff Adrian Garcia made the announcement last week that active Sikh officers would be permitted to wear their faith’s traditional beard and turban while they patrolled the streets of greater Houston. This move comes after a long string of requests from Houston’s Sikh activists. Activists had petitioned the department to consider the freedom of religious expression for years. Houston has one of the nation’s largest communities of South Asian Sikhs, according to this article in the Washington Post. The move joins Houston with Washington D.C. and Riverside, California, as some of the first police forces in the nation to allow Sikhs to wear their “articles of faith.”
“By making these religious accommodations, we will ensure that (our) office reflects the community we serve, one of the most culturally rich and diverse in America,” Garcia told reporters. “Deputies need to not only understand, respect and communicate with all segments of the population, bur represent it as well.”
Jasjit Singh, the executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington applauded the move, telling reporters “With this policy, one of the largest sheriff’s offices in the country has affirmed that a person does not have to choose between their faith and a career of service.”
You can bet that former Sublett County Deputy Gene Bryson might have something to say about the decision over in Houston. As you read earlier on LEO Affairs, Bryson was the Wyoming deputy who retired after 40 years in the service when Sheriff Stephen Haskell told his officers that they would no longer be able to wear Western attire while on patrol.
“I’m very much for the Western way of life and the look. And that’s the way I dress. However, for a professional outfit… I like everybody to look the same. We are one team unified in one purpose. That is to do our job,” Haskell told reporters.
When Bryson retired, he told reporters that the uniform change was “kind of the reason why. I’m not going to change. I’ve been here for 40-odd years in the sheriff’s office, and I’m not going to go out and buy combat boots and throw my vest and hat away and say, ‘This is the new me.’ I’ve had a cowboy hat on since 19. That’s what looks good to me in the sheriff’s department. It’s Western. It’s Wyoming.”
While the Western outfit doesn’t qualify as “articles of faith,” it certainly does reflect the community that the police officer’s serve. That was one of the major points the Garcia told reporters when explaining his decision to allow beards and turbans, despite the standard uniform not allowing them. In a county that True West magazine one named a “True Western town,” the decision to not allow officers to wear Western hats or boots could cause people to ask whether the officers are truly allowed to reflect the community they serve.