Las Vegas Sun

November 23, 2017

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Anti-beard policy puts force in a hairy place


Steve Marcus

Metro Police Detective Steve Riback, at Chabad of Southern Nevada in April 2007, is receiving a settlement from the department and permission to allow a short beard and head covering in accordance with his faith as an Orthodox Jew.

Did Metro cut off its beard to spite its face?

When Detective Steve Riback asked the police department for permission to wear a beard and a head covering, in keeping with the laws of his Orthodox Jewish faith, Metro basically had two options: agree or dig in and fight.

Metro dug in.

Two years later Metro lost the legal battle. In January Riback got permission to wear a short beard and baseball cap. The department also agreed to pay the detective a $350,000 settlement, not to mention whatever Metro spent defending the case. This payout outraged some Sun readers and privately some police officers. Riback is not winning “most popular” anytime soon. But bluster over the settlement, and squabbling over Riback’s religious rights, buried the new issue: Now nobody in uniform can wear a beard.

Before the Riback settlement, uniform officers with medical conditions that prevented them from shaving were allowed have beards. But no longer. Now only religious exemptions will be allowed. People with medical conditions will be given a different assignment in the department until their condition calms down and they can shave again.

Instead of revising its policy to be more accommodating, Metro did the opposite.

The variety of reasons Metro offered for its no-beard policy ranged from practical safety concerns to points of police philosophy: Beards interfere with a gas mask seal, beards would have a “disruptive effect” in the work environment, beards present Metro with an “undue hardship,” beards undermine the “integrity of the uniform.”

The most recent rationale: “Beards are not consistent with the department’s uniformity of appearance (policy).”

Metro officers are allowed to wear mustaches, however, and some are quite full.

Officers who did have the medical shaving exemption were given 30 days’ notice of the new policy, and so far, none has been taken out of uniform.

Officers can apply for religious exemptions, like Riback’s — but what message does that send to the next Orthodox Jew considering becoming a cop? Or a Sikh who cannot cut his hair and must wear a turban? Or a Hindu who must wear a beard?

The department’s policy on beards certainly limits its appeal at a time when it is hustling to hire hundreds of recruits, who will be asked to police an increasingly diverse community.

By comparison, the Navy issues shaving waivers. The New York Police Department employs Hasidic Jews. The ranks of the Border Patrol include a Sikh.

A police officer patrolling Vegas in 1950 might have done a double-take at the sight of a bearded detective wearing a baseball cap. But if the old-school cop movies have it right, that same Vegas officer would be equally surprised to see detectives walking around without fedoras.

Many argue that Riback should have known he couldn’t wear a beard when he applied — the rules are the rules.

Yes, and in the previous century, when Vegas was still a segregated town, black police officers were allowed to patrol only West Las Vegas, the black area of town. Women were once forbidden from becoming police officers.

Communities change. Rules are rewritten. If they aren’t, institutions don’t evolve.

Compared with battles over race and gender, a short beard and baseball cap seems small potatoes.

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