It was announced last week that the Washington D.C. police department would be making changes to its uniform policy that would allow Sikh officers to wear their strictly adhered-to religious symbols and paraphernalia while on-duty. The policy change, as reported by the Washington Post, would allow Sikh officers to keep their beards unshorn while on active duty as well as wear their characteristic turbans, so long as they match the color of their uniform. Other religious items like steel bracelets and small decorative swords may also be worn (the latter under their uniform).

The D.C. Chief of Police, Cathy L. Lanier, said that the policy was a good move. “To me this is a common-sense decision. It is important that we have representation from all of our communities across Washington, D.C.” The policy coincides, according to the Post, with the approaching graduation of a Sikh officer from the police academy.

SALDEF, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, has hailed the policy as a victory for Sikh civil rights. And while that victory may be important, the story gained national attention more due to its high profile. Other departments like the NYPD have made exceptions to their rules, and some departments like the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department only allow Sikhs to serve as reserve officers. The DC Metro Police (MPD), however, is the first major metropolitan police department in America to allow Sikhs to serve as full active-duty officers by modifying their uniform policies to allow Sikh religious exemptions.

More interesting than that the high profile is the fact that the MPD is technically a department within the federal government. Washington D.C. is the national capital, and in accordance with Article Eight, Section One of the Constitution is established by the Congress. Thus, the decision made by the MPD is being made on the federal level.

This decision stands in contrast with previous federal policies that were less than favorable toward those seeking exemptions for religious garb. In 1984, Army Chief of Staff Gen. John A. Wickham Jr. eliminated prior exemptions for religious individuals who sought to wear religious articles with their uniform. Other branches also effectively barred religious items that did not conform with uniform code restrictions. Such regulations were challenged in 1968 by S. Simcha Goldman, an Air Force psychologist and Orthodox Jewish rabbi who was reprimanded for testifying at a court-martial while wearing his traditional yarmulke (violating Air Force Regulation 35-10, which stated in part that “headgear will not be worn… [w]hile indoors” except by armed, on-duty security police). He had previously never been prevented from wearing his yarmulke on-duty.

The Supreme Court that resulted from this challenge, Goldman v Weinberger, found against Goldman. The Court stated that such policies were perfectly reasonable given the military’s need to “foster instinctive obedience, unity, and esprit de corps.” The military does still have a responsibility to uphold basic First Amendment guarantees, but ultimately “The desirability of dress regulations in the military is decided by the appropriate military officials, and they are under no constitutional mandate to abandon their considered professional judgment.”

The military, throughout its history and as recently as 2010, has made several exceptions to uniform policies that allowed Sikhs to serve in active-duty roles. And all of these policies have fallen into a broader trend in recent years of upholding greater levels of diversity in military and law enforcement organizations. But as the court in Goldman had serious concerns about the military’s need to maintain “obedience, unity and esprit de corps,” we must also ask here whether or not increasing levels of religious exemption in uniform policies might have a negative impact on police discipline or effectiveness.

Some research has been done in this area. Richard R. Johnson, M.S. wrote an excellent article on this subject titled “The Psychological Influence of Police Uniforms” that addressed questions about how uniforms influence both the mindset of the officers and their effect on the public. At one point, he addresses how the appearance or condition of an officer’s uniform could impact his or her safety. “Interviews with prison inmates who have murdered police officers indicate that the killers often visually ‘sized-up’ the officer before deciding to use violence. If the officer looked or acted ‘unprofessional’ in the assailant”s eyes, then the assailant felt that he was capable of successfully resisting the officer.”

Another concern is the matter of headgear, a subject that Johnson also discusses in some detail.

Although the police uniform, in general suggests the authority of the wearer, details about a police officer”s uniform, such as the style of hat or the tailoring, can influence the level of authority emanating from the officer. Photographs of uniformed male and female police officers were evaluated wearing nine different styles of head gear, including no hat at all. Even though psychological tests showed that the officers were perceived to have authority under all of the circumstances, the type of hat varied the level of authority attributed to the officer. The traditional “bus driver” garrison cap and the “smoky bear” campaign hat were found to convey more authority than the baseball cap or no hat at all.

There is no evidence to suggest that Sikhs would somehow appear to be “easier targets” for those who may consider assaulting an officer or resisting arrest, or that the turban would convey a greater or lesser aura of authority to the public.  This is simply because no Sikh officers have yet served as full officers in great enough numbers to be studied.  However, there are some concerns surrounding possible religious violence. Several Sikhs were killed shortly after the September 11 attacks, apparently because they were confused with Muslims.

While such retaliatory violence is in itself tragic, these killings were even more tragic as they were completely misdirected. Sikhs are NOT Muslims, and the two religions should not be conflated with each other. (See SALDEF’s basic information on Sikhism here.) Though the Sikh community has tried to raise awareness in some parts of the country, such unfortunate confusions will likely persist for some time. Further, the overt appearance of the Sikh, with their prominent beards and turbans, makes them very easy to identify. Does this make Sikh officers more vulnerable to religious violence? Likewise, if other religious garb exemptions follow, would Jewish officers be at greater risk for anti-Semitic attacks by wearing their yarmulkes?

As there have been virtually no policies in the United States that have allowed Sikhs to serve as active-duty police officers, there is little to no evidence that suggests that such a trend could be possible. And as the Court found in Goldman, it is the decision of the officials at hand to judge what uniform codes are best. Careful research will have to be conducted as the policy is enacted to ensure that Sikhs are not subjected to unreasonable or disparate levels of public retaliation or on-the-job violence.

If the MPD believes that the policy will not negatively impact police effectiveness, then the move is one that can be cautiously celebrated. For the moment, we can enjoy the fact that the American dream has been further realized by yet another diverse group from around the world. We should, however, keep a cautious eye on the situation to ensure that the safety of both the the public at large and the Sikh officers themselves is not adversely affected.

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin