Las Vegas Sun

June 25, 2017

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Police test his faith

Metro isn't the only police force that won't let its officers wear beards.

An LAPD spokesman said the department did not have a specific policy regarding yarmulkes or head coverings, but he didn't think it would be a problem to let an officer wear a yarmulke under his service cap.

The Los Angeles Police Department also bans beards, for example, except in cases of medical necessity.

Paul Browne, the New York City Police Department deputy commissioner for public information, said department policy generally bans beards for uniformed and nonuniformed officers, but exceptions are made.

Late last year, he noted, NYPD swore the first Hasidic Jew into its officer ranks. The department let him wear a beard and not work during the Jewish Sabbath, the one-day period that begins Fridays at sundown.

Browne said that uniformed Jewish officers are allowed to wear yarmulkes under their caps, and that nonuniformed officers and detectives are free to wear them around the station house.

In 1999 a federal appeals court upheld a decision that allowed two Muslim officers in Newark, N.J., to wear beards as their faith require s, despite city policy.

Other departments have also granted religious exemptions for beard-wearing police officers.

The appeals panel ruled that the Newark Police Department's no-beard rule discriminated because it allowed medical exemptions but not religious ones.

For his first several years on the force, Metro Police Officer Steve Riback's faith was never an issue.

As a dedicated policeman and relatively non-observant Jew, he worked whenever he was asked and kept himself clean-shaven to department specs, no questions asked.

Five years ago, about the time he made detective, Riback met an Orthodox rabbi.

The two talked for months about what it means to be Jewish in the modern era, and why it is important to stick to age-old traditions. Riback was drawn back to Judaism.

But as he has incorporated Orthodox practices into his life - observing the Sabbath, praying three times daily, keeping kosher - Riback says , Metro has become increasingly unwilling to accommodate him, or even to work with him to try to resolve the issue.

Specifically, the department won't let him grow a trim beard or wear a yarmulke or any other type of head covering, actions that are prescribed by Jewish law, he says. The issue has reached the boiling point, prompting Riback to file a discrimination complaint with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission and to enlist the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

"I'd be lying if I said that this didn't rip a piece of my heart out," says Riback, 31. Being a cop, he said, is "something I've given my life to. I always felt like I would be taken care of."

A decade ago Riback, a Southern California native, stopped taking classes full time at UNLV to sign up for Metro's police academy. Since graduating, he's racked up an impressive career working as a corrections officer, with the DARE anti-drug program for schoolchildren, and for three years as a vice unit undercover detective working prostitution investigations.

Riback says that he's received several commendations for his work, and that his permanent department jacket is blemish-free. Internal Metro personnel records are kept confidential.

The conflict never came into question during the three years Riback worked in the vice unit. Because he was undercover, he could wear a beard the whole time. Also, while on vice he kept his head covered by wearing hats, Riback explained in a Dec. 5 letter to Metro's employment diversity director, Walter Norris.

After transferring to a non-uniformed desk job in Metro's Office of Quality Assurance division about seven months ago, Riback at first kept wearing both a short beard and his knitted black yarmulke, without incident.

Then, Riback said in the letter, Metro Deputy Chief Mike Ault, the Internal Affairs director who until recently headed the department's Professional Standards Division, saw the beard and told Riback's supervisor to tell him to shave it. He did, to avoid a confrontation.

Riback said he knew about Metro's grooming policy, which says beards are not allowed, with exceptions for undercover work and medical conditions. He asked for religious accommodation, and he asked about continuing to wear a yarmulke.

The next month Norris e-mailed, asking Riback why his religion requires a yarmulke and a beard. Riback, and later his rabbi, Shea Harlig, responded that a yarmulke is a reminder that God is always above us, and that beards are channels of holiness and thus are not to be fully shaved .

Getting no response from Metro, Riback filed his claim with the Equal Rights Commission on Jan. 9.

In a Jan. 25 letter, Norris officially denied Riback's requests, explaining that the department prohibit s beards because they prevent proper fitting of gas masks, and that the grooming policy is enforced to impose uniformity and prevent a "disruptive effect."

Norris went on to say that a yarmulke is not authorized under department regulations. Although Riback had noted that he can fulfill his religious obligation by wearing any head covering, Norris said no compromise could be found without creating "undue hardship" for Metro.

Norris added that religion has no place on an officer's uniform: "Law enforcement must remain religion neutral," he wrote. "It is inappropriate to bring religion into our interactions with the public or into the workplace."

Metro's policies appear to contradict that . As Riback's ACLU attorneys noted in an April 12 letter to the Equal Rights Commission, one of the service pins Metro lets officers wear is from the International Fellowship of Christian Police Officers. The pin includes the group's name and a picture of an open Bible.

"There is no mistaking this pin for a nonreligious item," ACLU attorneys Lee Rowland and Allen Lichtenstein wrote. "Detective Riback perceives the allowance of identifying Christian insignia on uniformed officers, while denying Detective Riback the right to wear a religious item required by his faith in a nonuniformed desk job, as a discriminatory preference for Christianity."

Rowland and Lichtenstein, who are working with ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Gary Peck, noted that Riback's request to wear a plain baseball cap was also rejected by Capt. Stavros Anthony - because Riback wanted to wear the cap for religious reasons.

Riback's attorneys also noted that he had been fitted for a mask while he worked in vice - and wore a thick beard - and that it didn't present a problem.

Federal law says employers must make "reasonable accommodation" for employees to exercise their religion, so long as it doesn't create "undue hardship" for the employer.

Riback has made clear, in letters to his superiors and in a recent interview, that he hopes to reach a compromise.

Riback has asked that a professional mediator from the Equal Rights Commission be brought in , but Metro has declined to participate.

Metro General Counsel Liesl Freedman - the only Metro official made available to comment on this story - said "we have worked with Officer Riback to the point that we don't think that mediation would be meaningful."

Freedman otherwise declined to comment, noting the possibility of a federal lawsuit.

Cynthia Luria, Nevada regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, has been briefed on Riback's case by his attorneys. She says she doesn't believe that anti-Semitism is behind Metro's stance.

"It's insensitivity," says Luria, noting that she hasn't heard Metro's side of the story. "You cannot have one set of rules for officers of one religion and a different set for those of another. That is discrimination."

Lichtenstein says the complaint with the Equal Rights Commission could be a prelude to a federal civil rights lawsuit against Metro.

Riback says he suffers every day he goes to work beardless and without his yarmulke. A big part of his identity has been stripped from him.

A compact man with a serious demeanor, Riback speaks passionately about his faith and his job. He wants to hold on to both. He doesn't know what he'll do if he loses his legal battle.

"I've really felt the two could be equally balanced," Riback says, "that I could have the best of both worlds."

Riback says his battle also is for future officers who might find themselves in similar situations.

"I'm not fighting only for myself," he says. "This is a fight for everyone in Metroland."

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