New York Police car NYPD logo New York City police car. Photo Credit: flickrM

Two women who are practicing Muslims have sued the New York City Police Department for discrimination, alleging both endured humiliation at the hands of arresting officers who forced them to remove their head coverings, according to a complaint filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The civil rights class action targeted an NYPD booking photograph policy that the plaintiffs, which include an organization that helps victims of domestic violence in the Muslim community, say is a violation of their religious freedom.

Jamilla Clark, a New Jersey resident, was arrested in January 2017. She claims her ex-husband falsely complained that she’d violated an order of protection. At the time of her arrest, she claimed to have informed officers she was not able to remove her hijab. Despite honoring her request at the local precinct, when she was transferred to central booking, she was told that she faced criminal prosecution if she refused to remove her head cover.

She then claims she was transferred to police headquarters where, fearful of criminal charges and in tears, she reluctantly removed her hijab and was photographed. Despite religious prohibitions on men outside her family touching her and seeing her uncovered, Clark says the photograph was shared with approximately five male NYPD officers, and that she was touched repeatedly. She believes the police still maintain at least one photo of her without her hijab.

“The existence of this photograph haunts Ms. Clark, who is distressed by the prospect of the photograph being viewed again and again by men who are not members of her immediate family,” the complaint states.

Brooklyn resident Arwa Aziz says she, too, was arrested thanks to the mendacity of a family member, this time a sister-in-law who obtained a protective order Aziz claims was granted under false pretenses. She says she voluntarily entered police custody after her sister-in-law repeatedly requested her arrest.

Again, while at the local precinct, Aziz says her request to keep her hijab on while photos were taken was honored. However, when she arrived at central booking in Brooklyn, she says she was forced to remove her hijab by a number of officers while standing in a long hallway with more than 30 male inmates present. When she protested, she says she was told by an unnamed officer, “It’s the law.”

She was informed that a trip to police headquarters in Manhattan would be required if she wanted a female to take her photo, but that her booking process would have to start all over again. Her pleas to keep the hijab on, or, at least, to have it only pulled slightly back, were to no avail.

Aziz removed the cover from her head, and “wept throughout the entire ordeal” of being photographed while male officers and some inmates looked on, the complaint claims. She believes the police maintain at least three of these photos, which “continues to … distress and humiliat[e]” Aziz.

The complaint takes aim at an interim NYPD order, issued in 2015, that codified what observers say has been a standing practice by the department. The order states that, in order to “accommodate” those refusing to take off religious head covering, the department offers a trip to One Police Plaza similar to what Clark did—a private photograph with “an unobstructed view of the arrestee’s head, ears, and face.” This photo represents “an official Department picture.”

Yet observers note that this so-called accommodation could be interpreted as a way of pressuring people into a situation similar to that faced by Aziz: the prospect of an elongated booking process and still be forced to remove religious garb anyway.

Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady partner O. Andrew Wilson, who is part of the plaintiffs’ legal team, noted in an interview that numerous other government agencies, including the U.S. Department of State in issuing passports and the New York Department of Motor Vehicles in issuing driver’s licenses, allow head covers to be warn in official photos. Other law enforcement agencies in places such as Michigan, Minnesota, and California have followed suit, he added.

“The NYPD’s maximalist position requiring stripping New Yorkers of religious head covering is out of step with the rapidly coalescing national standard on arrest photographs,” he said.

Emery Celli is joined by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in representing the plaintiffs.

In a statement, a spokesman for the city said it was reviewing the complaint but that it was “confident that the police department’s religious head covering policy passes constitutional muster.”

“It carefully balances the department’s respect for the customs of all religions with the legitimate law enforcement need to take arrest photos,” the spokesman said. “Persons who do not wish to remove religious head coverings in front of others have the option of being taken to a separate, more private facility to be photographed.”

Robina Niaz is founder of the nonprofit group Turning Point for Women and Families, which is suing the city alongside Clark and Aziz. In an interview, she said other Muslim women her group has come in contact with have experienced the same traumatic experience at the hands of police as the group’s co-plaintiffs have.

Many of the clients come from countries where there’s already “a tremendous fear of the police,” Niaz said. Part of the group’s mission in assisting domestic violence victims is to convince them that the NYPD “is on their side.” Experiencing this or even hearing about it as a practice will not only “discourage girls and women from going to the police to file a report,” but “it will discourage them to even come to us,” she said.

The suit brings claims under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as the First Amendment free exercise and New York State constitutional claims.