New Jersey Police Officer Files Lawsuit Alleging Hair Discrimination

After being penalized for wearing a traditional African hairstyle, a Black police officer in New Jersey has launched a discrimination case against Maplewood Township. According to NBC News, the plaintiff, Chian Weekes-Rivera, claimed in the case that the township reprimanded her “for having Black hair” – which she claims violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

The law in question “prohibits unlawful employment discrimination based on an individual’s race, creed, color, national origin, nationality, ancestry, age, sex (including pregnancy), familial status, marital/civil union status, religion, domestic partnership status, affectional or sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait, genetic information, liability for military service, and mental or physical disability (including perceived disability, and AIDS and HIV status).”

Weekes-Rivera also identified Maplewood police captain Peter Kuenzel as a defendant in the case, in addition to the municipality. Weekes-Rivera stated in the suit that she arrived at work on August 20 with a Bantu knots haircut. However, after eleven days, she received an Internal Affairs complaint. According to the lawsuit, the complaint told her that her hairdo did not comply with the department’s on-duty dress code, and that the plaintiff’s sergeants were similarly reprimanded as a result of their “failure to supervise” for failing to discipline Weekes-Rivera.

In another warning, Kuenzel informed Weekes-Rivera that she had broken the department’s dress code guideline by wearing a hairdo with “rollers.” “To get that paper, it was cringeworthy,” Weekes-Rivera recalled. “I had to ask him questions to stop myself from crying.”

In her lawsuit, Weekes-Rivera claims that the defendants targeted and reprimanded her “as a result of her race and ethnicity.”

“Maplewood is trying to send a chilling message to the entire department that not only are we going to discriminate against Chian, we are going to hold other people accountable for not discriminating against her,” the plaintiff’s attorney said.

Andrew Johnson, a Black varsity high school wrestler from New Jersey, gained national headlines in 2018 after a referee forced him to shave his dreadlocks or forfeit a bout. The incident in issue triggered a discussion about racial discrimination. A state civil rights investigation has also been begun.

In the case, Weekes-Rivera also mentioned Johnson’s experience, noting that “black hair goes beyond just cultural differences” and is a statement of identity and culture, according to NBC News.

“I cried when I saw that,” she said in reference to Johnson’s experience. “I’m a woman with locs. And for this young man to be told, ‘You can’t play because of your hair,’ it’s heartbreaking. What do you tell Black children? What do you tell Black people who just want to love themselves and thrive like everyone else? We can’t control how our hair grows and how we might be different from the masses. To love yourself however you wake up, it’s hard to do.”

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