Sikh American police officers in Washington, D.C. are now allowed to wear turbans and full beards on the job under a uniform policy change announced Wednesday.
The written change is said to be the first of its kind for a major metropolitan police force, though other law enforcement agencies have less formal arrangements, according to the Associated Press.
Under the new rules, Sikh officers are permitted to tie their beard in a knot and tuck it beneath their chin and wear a uniform-matching turban at all times unless it conflicts with duty requiring them to wear a helmet, such as when responding to a riot. The policy will also allow officers to wear other religious items such as steel bracelets around their wrists and small decorative swords under their clothing, the Washington Post reported.
"I think it's a step forward not only for civil rights and religious freedom, I think it's a step forward for law enforcement," said Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Under the new policy, Sikhs won't have to make a "false choice" between their faith and earning a living, he said.
There are no active-duty Sikh officers currently working for the D.C. police department, so the change will have minimal immediate practical implications. The department's only Sikh officer is a reserve preparing to graduate from the police academy, according to the Post.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier called the policy a "common-sense decision" and said it's important for the police force to have representation from all communities across the nation's capital.
“I have to remind myself sometimes that in my lifetime women were not allowed to ride in patrol cars along with men, and now I’m chief,” Lanier said during a news conference.
Sikhism is a monotheistic faith founded in South Asia more than 500 years ago. With more than 25 million adherents around the world, observant Sikhs do not shave their beards or cut their hair, covering their heads with turbans instead. They have sometimes faced harassment in the U.S. in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, with some mistaking them for Muslims.
According to the Post, there are about 700,000 Sikhs in the U.S., with about 25,000 of them living in the Washington metro area.