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Police Officers In Nashville May Wear Religious Head Coverings

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In Nashville, police officers can now wear religious head coverings. The update comes just as the city is settling a federal discrimination complaint. This as police departments across the country are struggling to diversify. Here's Samantha Max of member station WPLN.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: Maryam Mohammed was 5 years old when she decided she wanted to be a police officer. Her mom's house was chaotic. And she remembers the relief she felt when two officers showed up at the front door.

MARYAM MOHAMMED: If there was a real-life superhero standing in front of me, that was the time. The men in uniform standing in front of me - I said, oh, that's what I want to be when I grow up.

MAX: It took Mohammed a few decades to get there after dropping out of high school, working odd jobs and even converting to Islam. But a few years ago, her husband encouraged her to revisit her childhood dream.

MOHAMMED: He's the one that backed me and pushed me.

MAX: Mohammed and her husband had recently moved to Nashville, which is home to the country's largest Kurdish community. And Mohammed wanted to be the city's first hijab-wearing officer. She hoped to bring her unique perspective to the department and to show other Muslim women that they had a place there, too.

MOHAMMED: I had all this inspiration that I was going to apply and be who I am, the best I am as a normal person. And I would not be discriminated against over my scarf.

MAX: Mohammed passed all of her tests and was anxiously awaiting a job offer. But just days before she thought she would be starting the academy, she learned she'd been disqualified. And she suspected it had to do with her hijab. Mohammed filed an EEOC complaint accusing the department of religious discrimination. And the EEOC sided with her. The commission found MNPD had a blanket practice of denying religious accommodations, which violates federal civil rights law. And it's not just Nashville. Multiple departments across the country have explicitly prohibited hijabs, including Philadelphia, which got permission from a federal court. Some cities allow religious attire, like Baltimore. Others, including Chicago, don't even mention it in their policies.

LUNA DROUBI: I think a lot of it stems from a fundamental lack of education about religious beliefs.

MAX: Luna Droubi is a civil rights attorney who has represented several first responders across the country who claim they've been discriminated against because of their religion, including Mohammed.

DROUBI: The growing sentiment from all the individuals who've contacted me is they don't want me because of who I am. I represent something that is fundamentally at odds with this police department. And that's really disheartening. And it makes people opt not to join the force.

MAX: Droubi says many departments want all of their officers to look exactly the same. But she says police forces will only get better if their employees look like their communities. Little data exists on the number of Muslim police in the U.S., much less on those who wear hijabs. But the number could soon grow in Nashville. This year, the city decided to settle with Mohammed. And the police department updated its uniform policy to allow religious head coverings.

KAY LOKEY: It's a recruitment tool.

MAX: Deputy Chief Kay Lokey now oversees recruitment for Nashville Police.

LOKEY: If there is a female out there with her religious headwear, it speaks volumes to the community, the Muslim community. Now they see someone they can identify. And maybe that career that I thought would be neat isn't so far-fetched now.

MAX: Lokey declined to comment on the department's old policy. But she hopes the predominantly white, male department will soon reflect the diversity it serves. For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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