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

Kirsty Powell Settles Long Beach Hijab Suit That Brought Policy Change for $85k

A Muslim woman and the City of Long Beach have settled her civil rights lawsuit that alleged a cop unjustly and forcibly removed her religious headscarf known as a hijab.

The Long Beach City Council voted Tuesday to approve the settlement, which includes $85,000 in damages for Kirsty Powell.

The Anaheim-based Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) had filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of Powell, an African-American Muslim woman who wears a hijab due to her religious beliefs.

During a traffic stop, Powell was arrested on outstanding warrants that have since been cleared, according to CAIR-LA, which alleged Long Beach Police Department officers repeatedly told her she would have to remove her hijab and denied her requests to be searched by a female officer or allowed to continue wearing the headscarf while in custody.

Powell claimed having her hijab removed in view of other male officers and dozens of inmates and being forced to spend the entire night exposed in custody left her deeply traumatized. “I would never want anyone to go through what I felt from this experience,” she reportedly said when the suit was filed. “I want my Muslim sisters to always feel comfortable and safe wearing a hijab and to stand up for what's right.”

The Long Beach Police Department amended its policy in November to accommodate religious head coverings for persons in custody, according to CAIR-LA, whose legal actions have spurred law enforcement agencies in Orange and San Bernardino counties to similarly change their procedures.

“We commend Kirsty Powell for choosing to defend her right to religious freedom and taking action,” says Marwa Rifahie, a CAIR-LA civil rights attorney, in a statement. “In addition to compensating Kirsty for the humiliation and distress she suffered, this decision also prompted a city-wide policy change by the Long Beach Police Department to ban the practice of forcible removal of the hijab for female arrestees in custody.”

Monte Machit, Long Beach assistant city attorney, confirms that female officers are now required to remove a female inmate’s headscarf when necessary for officer safety—and outside the presence of male officers and inmates—before it is returned to the wearer.

“In our view, the removal of the hijab by a male officer, in the presence of other males, while consistent with the then-existing Long Beach Police Department policy, may have violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” Machit reportedly told the Los Angeles Times. “The 9th Circuit [Court] has not specifically weighed in on whether removing the hijab actually violated [the law], but we believed that the existing policy was not consistent with the Act.”

“Long Beach did the right thing by admitting that stripping Kirsty’s hijab stripped her of her religious freedom," says Carey Shenkman, a New York-based constitutional lawyer who also represented Powell, in the same CAIR-LA statement. "I hope more cities follow this example by adopting policies to ensure the constitutional rights of Muslims are protected.”

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