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Fired Sikh officer files charge against NYPD

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An Ozone Park Sikh traffic cop who was fired because he refused to remove his turban or trim his beard filed a charge of employment discrimination against the New York Police Department Monday.

Amric Singh Rathour’s complaint lodged with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Manhattan is the first step in suing the NYPD, said his attorney, Ravi Bhalla.

The complaint alleges the NYPD’s trimmed beard and no turban rules effectively ban otherwise qualified Sikhs from working as police officers, violating Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Unshorn hair and a headcovering are requirements of the Sikh religion.

“I feel like we never should have reached this point,” said Rathour, 25, who grew up in Ozone Park and attended John Adams High School. “Unfortunat­ely, the NYPD and the city have not expressed any interest in pursuing a dialogue with me.”

Deputy Chief Michael Collins, an NYPD spokesman, declined to comment on specifics of Rathour’s complaint, but said the department has done all it can to work out an agreement.

“We didn’t see any notice yet, but we have made extensive efforts to accommodate this individual and his needs,” he said. “He chose to refuse our assistance.”

Collins said the NYPD has uniform regulations in order to protect both police officers and civilians.

“There are safety concerns relative to the regulations of us wearing certain equipment,” he said. “Members of the Police Department have to be able to identify each other and we have to be easily recognizable to the public.”

Police departments from Canada to London allow turbaned Sikhs to serve and Rathour said he wanted to know why it was safe for Sikh officers to work in those areas but not in New York.

“There are Sikh police officers serving in many countries all over the world, and yet here in New York City, the most wonderfully, diverse city in the world, Sikhs are being denied their right to serve in the police force,” he said. “This is wrong and must change.”

Leroy Baca, head of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said in an April letter to his city’s Sikh community that he would welcome turbaned Sikhs in his force.

“The articles of your faith, including the turban and beard, will not be an obstacle to serving in the Department as long as an applicant is otherwise qualified,” he wrote.

Rathour was fired from his position as a probationary traffic enforcement agent in August. He said he was frequently called out of class at the NYPD’s training academy and told to shave his beard and remove his turban.

Determined to remain in the academy, he filed a reasonable accommodation request with the NYPD’s Equal Employment Opportunity office. He was called to a hearing, but refused to attend because he was not provided enough notice to have counsel present. He was given a month to reschedule the hearing, but the department terminated him before the end of that period.

Now the ball has shifted to the EEOC’s court. Jennifer Kaplan, an EEOC spokeswoman, said claims were confidential, but they were all investigated thoroughly. If a determination that discrimination has occurred is made, the EEOC can either reach an agreement with the employer or refer the case to the Justice Department, which can bring a lawsuit, she said.

Harpreet Singh, director of the Sikh Coalition, a national organization of more than 50 Sikh groups, said the coalition had repeatedly tried to contact Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg to settle the matter out of court, but their letters were ignored.

“The NYPD forced Amric to choose between his religion and his livelihood,” he said. “This is a choice no one should have to make.”

Rathour has found temporary employment as a courier with an overnight mail delivery service.

He is at least the second Sikh to run into trouble with the NYPD’s dress code in the last year. The department also denied a request by Jasjit Singh Jaggi, a Richmond Hill resident, to wear his turban.

Jaggi, who was the valedictorian of his graduating class at the training academy, rides the subway to work each day wearing a turban, and when he arrives on the job, removes that symbol of his religion, replacing it with an NYPD cap.

He was hoping for a policy change but said the wait has been humiliating.

“They never let me wear the turban. I don’t like it and if I have to I’d prefer to quit the job,” he said. “I can’t take it much longer. I’m really sick of it.”

But Rathour’s complaint gave Jaggi the belief change may be coming.

If we win this Jaggi would be able to serve with articles of faith as well,” said Harpreet Singh. “The victory is not just for Amric but for all Sikhs.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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