Ismahan Isse has wanted to be a police officer for years.
She prepared herself by earning an associate degree in criminal justice and entered the Columbus police academy in December. She lasted until March 16.
Isse, 29, is a Somali-American and a Muslim. The Police Division does not allow officers to wear head scarves and refused to change its policy for her. When she dropped out of the academy, “I told them the main reason was the scarf,” she said.
She would like to return, but her head covering, or hijab, is important to her identity.
“I want to remain myself,” she said.
Other police departments in U.S. cities have made accommodations for head scarves as they try to recruit candidates from increasingly diverse communities.
Mayor Michael B. Coleman has asked Columbus safety officials to re-examine the city’s policy after The Dispatch inquired about it for this story. Coleman thinks the policy could affect recruiting, his spokesman, Tyneisha Harden, said. “We are trying to diversify the police unit. We want to take a look at what other cities are doing.”
That’s appropriate, said City Councilman Zach Klein, who leads the public safety and judiciary committee. The city should always aim to maximize diversity because a workforce that reflects the community “is one of the many solutions toward improving police and community relations,” Klein said.
• • •Columbus police spokeswoman Denise Alex-Bouzounis said the division does not allow head scarves for two reasons: so officers look the same and portray an “impartial appearance,” and for safety. Officers are required, at times, to wear helmets and gas masks, and the gas masks won’t fit over and around head scarves, Sgt. Rich Weiner said. A scarf also could be used to try to strangle an officer, Weiner said. Male officers wear clip-on ties to avoid that danger.
Napoleon Bell, executive director of the Columbus Community Relations Commission, said he was saddened when Isse left the academy.
Her trainers “said she was doing really well — just as well and even better than some of the guys,” Bell said. “I’m hopeful she’ll change her mind, because she would be a great example for others.”
When members of his staff talked to Isse about why she had dropped out, she didn’t mention the head scarf but spoke of family obligations — she has three young children — and possibly wanting to choose a different career, Bell said.
Columbus has struggled with recruiting minority candidates, including African-Americans, immigrants and refugees, Bell said.
A Somali man made it into the Columbus police academy before Isse but failed some of the training requirements, Bell said.
“We really want to remove the barriers so more people of different backgrounds and from all over the world apply to our fire and police forces,” he said.
• • •Columbus has the second-largest Somali population in the U.S. — an estimated 40,000 — but the Police Division has never had a Somali officer, said Hassan Omar, who leads the Somali Community Association of Ohio. “The city hasn’t embraced or encouraged new Americans of any nationality to be a part of its police presence, and that’s disgraceful,” he said.
The Franklin County sheriff’s office does not have any Somali deputies, but it has a male cadet training to be a jail guard. He is expected to be assigned to one of the jails on May 8.
Sheriff Zach Scott said in an email that he would be open to addressing the issue of head scarves.
“We are looking forward to having a discussion regarding revisions of this nature to our uniform policy in order to accommodate potential female Muslim applicants for deputy positions,” he said.
Federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, said Drew Dennis, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
Employers must make reasonable accommodations, he said, but the interpretation of reasonable often becomes a sticking point.
“It has turned out to be highly dependent on a given situation,” Dennis said.
A few police agencies have allowed officers to wear religious garb for decades, he said. In 1994, for example, an African-American officer in Chicago won the right to wear earrings bearing the ankh, an ancient Egyptian symbol of life.
Other religious accommodations are more recent, as the country has become more multicultural.
In February in Houston, the Harris County sheriff announced that a Sikh officer would be allowed to wear his faith’s traditional beard and turban while on patrol. The Houston area is home to one of the nation’s largest communities of south Asian Sikhs.
“Deputies need not only understand, respect and communicate with all segments of the population, but represent it as well,” Sheriff Adrian Garcia said in a statement this year.
The Washington, D.C., police force offers similar accommodations for Sikhs.
But in 2007, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that the city’s police department didn’t violate the civil rights of a Muslim officer when it forbade her from wearing a head scarf.
The judge said “prohibiting religious symbols and attire helps to prevent any divisiveness on the basis of religion both within the force itself and when it encounters the diverse population of Philadelphia.”
• • •The police department in Edmonton, Alberta, does not have any female Muslim officers but has designed a uniform to accommodate candidates. It includes a hijab that snaps off when grabbed, similar to the clip-on ties Weiner referred to in Columbus.
A Somali woman training to become a transit officer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area wears a snap-off scarf. That’s no problem for Metro Transit, spokesman Howie Padilla said. “The expectation in the workforce will be that she does have a hijab.”
She also was allowed to wear the head covering when she was a civilian community-liaison officer in St. Paul.
The Ohio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations pushed for and received an allowance last year for a corrections officer in Cleveland to wear her hijab at work, staff attorney Romin Iqbal said.
During the past 20 years, CAIR has helped employees reconcile their religion with their workplace in several fields, spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said. “I can’t recall a case where we haven’t been able to reach a reasonable accommodation.”
Kulsoom Abdullah of Atlanta is a Pakistani-American who broke barriers when she became the first woman to compete in a hijab as well as a bodysuit during the World Weightlifting Championships in 2011. She believes that allowing women officers to wear head scarves will help in recruiting.
“I think that would be more encouraging to someone who has never considered that field of work,” she said.