A Muslim woman is suing the city of Long Beach, Police Chief Robert Luna, and six Long Beach Police officers after she said her hijab was forcibly removed by a Long Beach police officer a year ago, according to the Greater Los Angeles Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which filed the complaint on her behalf.
According to the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD), officers conducted a traffic stop on May 5, 2015 at 12:56PM near Market Street and Long Beach Boulevard, determining that the vehicle's hydraulic suspension made the passenger unsafe.
Police said that during the stop, passenger and Long Beach resident Kristy Powell, 33, was found to have three outstanding misdemeanor warrants—for Vehicle Theft, Petty Theft and Resisting Arrest—causing them to transport her and promptly book her on the warrants. Her bail was $36,000.
During the booking process, an LBPD release said that "Powell’s Hijab was removed and placed into her property bag where it was secured."
Powell's complaint states that after police conducted the traffic stop, police conducted a search of Powell's name, and they discovered two warrants for her arrest—one of which involved her sister falsely using Powell’s identity.
“During the arrest she was told by the officers that she would have to remove her head scarf,” CAIR-LA officials said in a release. “Powell made several requests for a female officer to search her [but] the officers informed her that she ‘was not allowed to wear her hijab’ and that they were ‘allowed to touch a woman’.”
According to the prosecution, at the police station an arresting officer allegedly forcibly removed Powell’s hijab and forced her to remain with her head exposed overnight in a jail cell, in plain view of other male officers and dozens of inmates. Many muslim women, like Powell, choose to cover their heads as a sign of modesty any time they are in the presence of men to whom they are not related.
The filing also states Powell was forced to have her booking photo, which is publicly available, taken without her head covered.
“The actions taken by the Long Beach Police officers were unwarranted and a serious violation of Mrs. Powell’s bodily integrity,”said CAIR-LA Civil Rights attorney Yalda Satar. “The manner in which Mrs. Powell was treated by LBPD officers 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.”
A release issued by the LBPD said the "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."
“We respect the religious rights and beliefs of all people and understand the sensitivity of this matter,” said Chief Robert Luna in a statement. “The policies we have in place are for the safety of the individual, other inmates, and police employees.”
Powell claims she noticed at least four female officers who were on duty during her booking and subsequent search, including one female officer who escorted her to a holding cell after her headscarf was removed.
“I would never want anyone to go through what I felt from this experience, it was horrible,” Powell said in a 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.”
Attorneys said two years ago the LBPD investigated an incident involving the removal of a Muslim-American woman’s hijab and labeled it a “hate crime.”
The lawsuit was filed in conjunction with first amendment and human rights attorney Carey Shenkman. It alleges violations under the First Amendment, Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Bane Act and the state constitution.
"There was no excuse for male officers to strip Mrs. Powell's First Amendment freedoms and dignity from her, in front of other male officers and dozens of inmates,” stated Shenkman. “The LBPD must honor its pledge that prejudice toward Muslim-American women will 'not be tolerated in our city.”
The Long Beach City Attorney's office has not responded to a request for comment.
Above, left photo of Kirsty Powell courtesy of CAIR-LA.
This report was updated at 10:47PM with information and statements from the LBPD.