D.C. Police Agree To Allow Religious Head Scarves In Police Lock-UpsOctober 17, 2011
The Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has agreed to a new policy that will for the first time respect the First Amendment right to wear religious head scarves in police holding facilities such as district stations and the central cellblock.
The agreement was reached after the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital and the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson LLP in April notified Chief of Police Cathy Lanier of planned litigation unless the MPD adopted reasonable accommodations for religious detainees. The letter presented a draft lawsuit on behalf of a young Muslim woman who was forced by police department employees to remove her religious head covering while in custody in 2008 in the MPD Sixth District Station.
“Though internal investigation at first found no flaw in MPD policies in force in 2008, we commend the MPD for recognizing the need for improved policy that respects people’s religious beliefs while still keeping the jails safe,” said Fritz Mulhauser, senior staff attorney at the ACLU. “The right to practice one’s religion is one of the most cherished freedoms, and it’s not one people abandon even in jail or prison.”
Under the settlement agreement, the MPD agreed to adopt a policy to accommodate women who wear head scarves for religious reasons. Under the new policy, women who are arrested will not be required to remove religious head coverings in the view of male officers and will be provided with temporary head scarves to wear while they are in custody. The MPD agreed to develop a new policy, train police officers on the new policy, and assure a supply of temporary head coverings. The MPD also agreed to pay damages and attorneys’ fees.
Octavia Washington of the District was arrested after police stopped her on May 2, 2008, as she drove her children in the family van, and a computer check incorrectly showed her driver’s license was suspended. She was taken to the Sixth District Station in Northeast Washington for processing. Despite her repeated requests to keep her head covered during her incarceration, Washington was forced to remove her head scarf in the presence of men she did not know, and to remain uncovered in a mixed group for hours. As her husband waited in the station front area she endured mocking and sexually-charged remarks from male detainees in the cell block, causing her great distress.
Washington, a student at the University of the District of Columbia who was born in the United States and converted to the Muslim religion, wears a head scarf known as a hijab to cover her hair, ears, neck, and part of her chest. Many Muslim women, like Washington, believe that proper modesty requires they should be covered at all times in the presence of men who are not members of their immediate family.
After long weeks of negotiations, Washington said, “It’s worth it to see progress and at least a promising new policy I hope is enforced so that other women won’t be ashamed and embarrassed as I was having to take off my hijab in front of a crowd of unknown men.”
Washington was never prosecuted in connection with the arrest because police confirmed after further review that the first computer report was wrong and her license was valid.
Washington, D.C., in agreeing to create a new policy accommodating religious head scarves, is the latest of many police departments, jails, and prisons nationwide doing so. Both the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the D.C. Department of Corrections have procedures that allow Muslim women to wear the hijab while in custody.
“The District saw that it could protect the religious rights of inmates of the Muslim faith and also maintain safe and orderly lock-ups. This settlement demonstrates that, when private litigants and government officials put their minds to it, they can reach a reasonable agreement that accommodates each party’s interests and by eliminating expensive court costs saves taxpayer dollars in the long run,” said Roger W. Yoerges, of the law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP that represented Washington in the negotiations and settlement.
The attorneys on the case were Yoerges and Joseph R. Hicks of Steptoe & Johnson LLP and Mulhauser and Arthur Spitzer of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital.