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NYC to pay $17.5M to women forced to remove head coverings by the NYPD

Amelie Zhao

New York City has agreed to pay $17.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit filed by two Muslim women, who were forced to remove their head coverings while being photographed for mugshots. 

After legal fees and costs are deducted, $13.1 million will be available for thousands of eligible individuals — both women and men — who were forced to remove religious head coverings between March 16, 2014 and Aug. 23, 2021.

The lawsuit was filed in 2018 by Jamilla Clark and Arwa Aziz, both practicing Muslims, who were arrested on Jan. 9, 2017 and Aug. 30, 2017 respectively, for violating “bogus” protective orders filed by abusive relatives or ex-relatives. 

At police headquarters, Clark was told she would be “criminally prosecuted if she declined to remove her hijab,” and a supervisor “made numerous hostile comments about Muslims,” the lawsuit said.

After Clark “reluctantly removed her hijab to be photographed,” her booking photo was shown to “approximately five male NYPD officers” and “male officers touched Ms. Clark repeatedly, even though she explained that such contact violated her religion,” The Washington Post reported.

When Aziz was arrested, officers refused to allow her to keep her hijab on for her photo and refused her request that she “pull her hijab back only slightly to reveal her bangs and hairline,” the lawsuit said.

In the end, they took her photos “in full view” of about a dozen male officers and more than 30 male inmates for almost five minutes, leaving her “frantic” and weeping, the lawsuit added.

The lawsuit also noted that booking photos are “kept forever” and can be seen by anyone who accesses the NYPD’s main database or looks at their paper file.

“Requiring a Muslim woman to remove her hijab in public is akin to demanding that a secular person strip naked in front of strangers,” said the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages and a declaration that the city’s handling of police photographs is unconstitutional.

The  NYC  Law Department  maintained the constitutionality of the NYPD’s religious head covering policy. 

“It carefully balances the department’s respect for the customs of all religions with the legitimate law enforcement need to take arrest photos,” a spokesman for the city’s Law Department said in a statement. “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.”

However, as part of an initial settlement of the lawsuit, the NYPD changed its policy in 2020, to stop requiring people to remove religious head coverings after their arrest, except if the covering obscured the individual’s facial features.

The financial settlement of $17.5 million is now up for approval from a judge. 

The settlement is “a milestone for New Yorkers’ privacy and religious rights,” Albert Fox Cahn said, a lawyer for the two women. The decision “sends a powerful message that the NYPD can’t violate New Yorkers’ First Amendment rights without paying a price.”

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