Long Beach Sued Over Cop's Removal of Muslim Woman's Hijab

Kirsty Powell said her experience with Long Beach Police was "horrible."
Kirsty Powell said her experience with Long Beach Police was "horrible."
Courtesy of CAIR-LA

The city of Long Beach and its police chief are being sued in federal court because an officer forcibly removed her religious head scarf or hijab, an Anaheim-based Muslim rights group announced Monday.

But Police Chief Robert Luna says the removal of the hijab was routinely done out of safety for the suspect, fellow jail inmates and police personnel.

A vehicle Kirsty Powell was riding in with her husband was stopped near East Market Street and Dairy Avenue just before 1 p.m. May 5, 2015, because of its hydraulic suspension, which officers deemed unsafe, according to Sgt. Bradley Johnson.

Officers determined Powell had three outstanding warrants—for vehicle theft, petty theft and resisting arrest—and took her into custody, Johnson said.

Male officers repeatedly told Powell to remove her hijab, but she made several requests to have a female cop search her, claims the Greater Los Angeles Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA).

"The officers informed her that she, 'was not allowed to wear her hijab' and that they were 'allowed to touch a woman,'" reads a CAIR-LA advisory. "While handcuffed at the station house, the arresting officer allegedly forcibly removed Powell's religious head covering and forced her to remain exposed overnight, in plain view of other male officers and dozens of inmates."

That's not exactly how the police department put it: "During the booking process Powell’s hijab was removed and placed into her property bag where it was secured," Johnson said.

The way Powell, who is Muslim and an African-American, was treated by police "was simply a show of authority over a woman of color who was unable to protect herself, and is another example of the type of discrimination faced by women who wear a hijab," says Yalda Satar, CAIR-LA's civil rights attorney.

“We respect the religious rights and beliefs of all people and understand the sensitivity of this matter,” Luna says. “The policies we have in place are for the safety of the individual, other inmates and police employees.”

His department released a statement that includes this:

The police department has a duty to protect all people who are in their custodial care, and one of the policies that protects inmates is that certain items are not allowed to be retained by a prisoner while in custody. These items include belts, neckties, shoelaces, and head coverings.

The police department takes great pride in our community partnerships. We will continue to work with local religious leaders to make sure we are mindful of cultural sensitivities while ensuring the safety of all involved. We will also reach out to our local law enforcement partners to ensure that our policies and practices remain consistent with industry standards. 


During Powell's booking and subsequent search, at least four female officers were on duty, including one who escorted her to a holding cell after her head scarf had been removed, CAIR-LA claims.

"I would never want anyone to go through what I felt from this experience, it was horrible," Powell is quoted as saying in the CAIR-LA statement. "I want my Muslim sisters to always feel comfortable and safe wearing a hijab and to stand up for what's right. We are all human, we all deserve justice."

Policies allowing for religious head wear have been adopted at the federal level and by neighboring counties, such as Orange and San Bernardino counties, according to the group. Actually, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California reached a settlement with the County of Orange in 2013 allowing for Muslim women to keep their religious headscarves on while in custody, the fallout from deputies at the jail forcing an Anaheim woman to remove her hijab.

Speaking of local history, CAIR-LA notes the Long Beach Police Department two years ago investigated an incident involving the removal of a Muslim-American woman's hijab and deemed it a "hate crime." Then-Police Chief Jim McDonnell stated that "crimes of this nature will not be tolerated in our city." He's now the Los Angeles County sheriff.

Powell's suit alleges violations under the First Amendment, Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), Bane Act and the California Constitution.


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