Officer refuses to cut dreadlocks despite reassignment to phone duty

July 12, 2000|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

For Antoine Chambers, dreadlocks are not simply a fashionable hairstyle. Like earlocks for Orthodox Jews, he says, they are a religious must for his spiritual practice, Rastafarianism.

That is why Chambers refuses to cut them. And his refusal is why Chambers, a patrolman in the Baltimore Police Department's Northern District since 1994, is now answering nonemergency phone calls rather than policing his beat.

Chambers was put on administrative duty June 27 after failing to comply with the department's hair-grooming regulations, which prohibit uniformed officers from adopting styles "which would likely be regarded as excessive or otherwise inappropriate to a uniformed appearance," according to the policy handbook.

Despite having to hand in his gun, badge and body armor, Chambers says he will not cut his locks.

"It would be a total violation," he said. "It would mean that I couldn't even express myself in the Rastafarian religion, nor as an African-American in my culture and heritage."

The American Civil Liberties Union agrees. The group's Maryland chapter yesterday asked the department to reinstate Chambers, citing federal, state and city laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion.

If the department does not restore Chambers to full duty, the ACLU will defend him against the department in court, said spokesman Dwight Sullivan. Currently his case is under review by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has four months to investigate it.

Baltimore police spokeswoman Ragina C. Averella declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing the possibility of a lawsuit.

Officer Gary L. McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, said the Baltimore department has never dealt with a similar case. "It's new legal ground," he said. "We assume that the courts will have to decide it."

Chambers, 31, was practicing Rastafarianism when he was hired by the department in 1994, but he only began growing dreadlocks a year and a half ago, he said. One of the tenets of the religion is that believers should keep their hair "in its natural state," he said.

"Several police officials, including McLhinney, said yesterday that a recent memo, inspired by Deputy Police Commissioner Barry Powell, specified that male officers were not to wear their hair in twists, corn rows or dreadlocks.

As required by his superiors, Chambers said he presented a letter from a "religious authority" - the Rev. Norman A. Handy Sr., a southern Baltimore city councilman - explaining the significance of his locks. Still, his commander disapproved.

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