NEWARK, NJ — Muslim officers in the Newark Police Department will be able to wear a hijab as part of their uniform in what Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara is calling a “slight change, but very impactful.” 

“This change, which allows our Muslim female officers to wear the hijab in uniform, is appropriate and timely,” O’Hara said during a Thursday press conference. “It sends a message that as an agency, we value and respect having Muslim officers in our department.”

The change in uniform policy was announced at the police department’s building on Washington Street where authorities were joined by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Imams Council of Newark President Daud Haqq. 

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In its traditional form, a hijab is worn by Muslim women to maintain modesty and privacy around men to whom they are not related to. 

After at least one Newark officer had brought the request of wearing a hijab as part of their uniform to the department’s attention, O’Hara said that multiple facets of safety and policy had to first be taken into consideration. 

For instance, the public safety director explained that officials had to rule the possibility of a suspect potentially grabbing the garment as a tactic to choke the officer, be able to wear it safely under a protective helmet or to take it off immediately in an emergency situation.  

With the new policy in place, the safety director said the move will not only serve as a message of consolidation with residents who practice the faith but show that the department aims to be more inclusive. Currently, O’Hara oversees a public safety department of more than 1,960 employees with a police division that is 34% Black, 44% Hispanic and 22% women.

“[The policy change] will help us attract other Muslim female officers to come and be police officers with us as well,” he said. “It also shows, visually, to the people in the community that we respect their faith, we value it, and we are proud to be a part of this community as well.”

The change in uniform policy comes as another way Newark police have taken steps to honor the faith of their Muslim officers. Officials noted that Newark police were one of the very first law enforcement departments in the country years ago to allow Muslim police officers to wear beards in respect to their faith. 

For over a decade, Newark officers and devout Sunni Muslims Faruq Abdul-Aziz and Shakoor Mustafa served as police officers while maintaining a beard without incident. 

In 1999, however, the then-chief of police decided to enforce a 1971 policy requiring officers to be clean-shaven. While this policy exempted those who had medical reasons for not shaving and even permitted mustaches and sideburns, it did not allow beards for religious reasons. 

When the department initiated disciplinary actions against the Muslim police officers, Aziz and Mustafa sued in federal district court, where they were successful in protecting their free exercise rights. On appeal, then-Third Circuit Judge Samuel Alito protected the officers’ religious freedom in a unanimous decision in March 1999. 

As the department moves to be more respectful of their officers’ religious beliefs, Baraka acknowledged that the recent change in uniform policy came during the period of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which strict fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset) which carried a weighted significance. 

“To be able to recognize people’s religion, how they practice it and allow them to do that safely and appropriately on their worksite, speaks volumes to where we are as a department and to where we are going as a city,” Baraka said.