Long Beach has agreed to pay $85,000 to settle a lawsuit that accused its police officers of stripping a Muslim woman of her hijab during an arrest and making her spend a night in jail without it.
According to the federal lawsuit, male police officers forcibly removed Long Beach resident Kirsty Powell’s head covering when they took her into custody in 2015 even after she explained she wore it as part of her religious beliefs.
The officers made her take a booking photo without the covering and didn’t return it until she was bailed out of jail the next day, court documents say.
“She cried throughout the ordeal and experienced humiliation when both her religious beliefs and personal integrity were violated,” Powell’s lawsuit says. “She felt that the male officers and male inmates had seen parts of her body that they should not have seen, according to her religious beliefs.”
The Long Beach City Council voted on Tuesday to pay the settlement, which covers damages to Powell and her attorneys fees.
“The city decided to settle because we viewed the claims by her as meritorious,” Assistant City Attorney Monte Machit said.
Officers who arrested Powell were following the Long Beach Police Department’s policy, but that policy itself was in the wrong, according to Machit.
Until November, the department instructed jailers to confiscate religious head coverings, including “hats, veils, tunics, etc.”
Those rules were blatantly discriminatory, said Marwa Rifahie, a civil rights attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which represented Powell.
“There really is no reason, unless someone is going to harm themselves, why they shouldn’t be allowed to wear a religious head covering,” Rifahie said.
About six months after Powell filed her lawsuit in May 2016, the Long Beach Police Department changed its policy to generally allow inmates to wear religious head coverings unless there’s fear they could be used to cause some kind of harm.
“They essentially conceded with the policy change that their policy was in violation of arrestee’s First Amendment rights,” Rifahie said.
Police will still remove the head coverings when searching arrestees, but the department will try to find officers of the same gender to do it, according to Machit.
Although it wasn’t included in the formal settlement agreement, Rifahie said the city also agreed to keep under seal the mugshot of Powell without her hijab.
The very existence of the photo haunted Powell, according to the lawsuit.
Police and sheriffs departments across California have a patchwork of rules governing how they handle religious garments, according to Rifahie.
“Some places are ahead of the curve. Some places are behind, and in this case, Long Beach was one of them,” she said.
Many jails and prisons have adapted to offer religious-specific meals but haven’t yet adopted policies respecting inmates right to wear head coverings, according to Rifahie.
In a press release about the settlement, CAIR pointed to San Bernardino County and Orange County as jurisdictions that both wrote policies allowing religious headwear after being sued over the issue.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department — which runs the nation’s largest jail system — doesn’t have a specific policy governing hijabs or headscarves, but, in practice, inmates are generally allowed to wear them, a department spokeswoman said in December.
Powell’s lawsuit also questioned why officers pulled her and her husband over in the first place on May 5, 2015. Powell is black. She alleged officers stopped the couple because they were in a low-rider.
Police later said they stopped the car because its suspension was unsafe.
Officers arrested Powell after discovering three misdemeanor warrants out for her arrest.
However, two of those warrants were issued for Powell only because her sister used Powell’s name during a run-in with police, according to attorneys who represented Powell.
The third was for petty theft when Powell was a teenager, according to Rifahie, who said Powell didn’t realize the warrant existed.