Judge says to reinstate Richmond Hill Sikh cop

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Donna Merris, an administrative law judge, declared that the officer, Jasjit Singh Jaggi, had suffered from religious discrimination under the Police Department's rules and should be allowed to wear a turban while on the job.

"Hopefully, this will be the decision," said Jaggi, 36, who graduated at the top of his class from a police training academy. Jaggi filed his lawsuit with the city's Human Rights Commission, which forwarded it to the city's Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.

Merris' ruling was simply a recommendation and must first be signed off on by the commission for it to become official. Normally that step is a formality and the commission follows judges' decisions.

Jaggi and many other Sikhs wear a turban and an unshorn beard to show their devotion to god, but the Police Department told him he had to follow policy and trim his facial hair and wear the standard issue eight-point white cap.

Responding to the initial judgment, the Police Department's lawyer wrote that the department had simply accepted Jaggi's resignation and that it required all its traffic officers to wear the same uniform in the interest of safety.

"We disagree with the recommendation of the administrative judge and will be submitting further comments to the commission," said Eammon Foley, of the Office of the Corporation Counsel, which represents the police. If the Human Rights Commission endorses Merris' ruling, the police have 30 days to appeal.

Jaggi entered the NYPD's Traffic Enforcement Division training academy in 2001 and was told by a department official that he would not be able to continue unless he cut his beard and took off his turban. Jaggi managed to keep the beard but removed his turban and wrote a letter to the Police Department's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity asking for an exemption.

He was turned down but asked again and got the same result. Without his turban, Jaggi told Merris he felt "humiliated, depressed (and) insulted."

He still graduated as class valedictorian in early 2002, but several months later Jaggi filed a lawsuit with the Human Rights Commission and began wearing his turban while on the job as a traffic officer in Times Square. Presented by a superior with the choice of wearing his cap or be fired or resigning, Jaggi left just 10 days before he became a fully certified officer.

"There was a time when I couldn't take the stress anymore," he said in a telephone interview this week. "Permission was again and again denied."

After leaving the force, Jaggi tried to return to his old job as a taxicab driver but could not deal with the readjustment, he said. Instead he took a job managing a Red Carpet Inn outside Killington, Vt., and moved his wife and two children north.

Jaggi said he hoped to get back his job with the NYPD and return to Richmond Hill.

In her ruling, Merris wrote, "the department's letters in response to petitioner's request for an accommodation of his religious beliefs flatly denied petitioner any accommodation whatsoever."

The NYPD argued that if Jaggi did not wear the standard-issue white cap he would not be recognizable as a traffic enforcement agent, thus jeopardizing his safety and the safety of drivers and pedestrians. The department also said Jaggi would not be able to use safety equipment such as gas masks effectively, would harm the camaraderie among traffic agents and would create a conflict with the secular philosophy of the department.

Merris ruled that the department produced no evidence to back up its safety claim, that Jaggi could remove his turban to put on a gas mask, that the jacket and pants of his uniform still made him identifiable to the public and to colleagues and that allowing him to wear his turban was not an endorsement of a religion.

Sikh police officers in Britain and Canada are allowed to wear turbans with standard insignia on the front. In New York City, Jaggi is not the only Sikh who has complained about the Police Department's policies.

In March 2003, Amric Singh Rathour, a traffic agent from Ozone Park, filed a lawsuit against the NYPD after being fired for failing to trim his beard and wear a cap instead of a turban. The status of Rathour's case could not be determined.

Jaggi said it pained him to take off his turban before work and that the act gave him a guilty conscience.

Said Jaggi of the head covering: "That's our unique identity. That's our faith towards the god."

Reach reporter Michael Morton at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 7:04 pm, October 10, 2011
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