New Jersey Police Officer Files Lawsuit Alleging Hair Discrimination Over Wearing Bantu Knots
Chian Weekes-Rivera, a Black female police officer at the Maplewood Township (NJ) Police Department, claims she was discriminated against after she was disciplined for wearing her hair in a traditional African hairstyle.
In a lawsuit filed in early November, Weekes-Rivera, 38, accuses the department and her supervisor, listed as Peter Kuenzel, a Maplewood police captain, of subjecting her “to disciplinary action for having Black hair,” which is a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, know as LAD.
According to the State of New Jersey Civil Service Commission, the law “prohibits unlawful employment discrimination based on an individual’s race, creed, color, national origin, nationality, ancestry, age, sex (including pregnancy), familial status, marital/civil union status, religion, domestic partnership status, affectional or sexual orientation,” and more.
The suit, filed in Essex County, described the incident that took place on Aug. 20, 2023. Weekes-Rivera, came to work with her hair in a popular natural and protective hairstyle—Bantu knots—having her hair sectioned and twisted. More than a week later, the law enforcement officer received a complaint from Internal Affairs claiming she violated the department’s on-duty dress code. Her sergeants were also disciplined for “failure to supervise” after refusing to discipline her. A copy of the violation was included in the suit.
Kuenzel called the Bantu knots “rollers” and informed Weekes-Rivera that was the reason she was in violation of the dress code policy.
“To get that paper, it was cringeworthy,” she told NBC News. “I had to ask him questions to stop myself from crying.”
The officer is accusing the police department of being “aided and abetted” by Kuenzel, as well as subjecting her to “discipline as a result of her race and ethnicity.” While she continues to work at the department, she isn’t sure about her job security or if the violation will prohibit her from advancing.
Identifying as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Weekes-Rivera said she feels added pressure on top of being a Black woman in a predominantly-male environment. She was “mortified” that she got in trouble over her hair. “It’s super embarrassing,” she added. “It makes me feel like less than.”
“Maplewood is trying to send a chilling message to the entire department that not only are we going to discriminate against Chian, we are going to hold other people accountable for not discriminating against her,” her attorney, John Coyle, said.
According to the New Jersey Monitor, Weekes-Rivera was featured in a video called “Sheroes of the Maplewood Police Department” in 2021 that celebrated the diversity of its police officers.
In 2019, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed the CROWN Act, prohibiting race discrimination on the basis of “traits historically associated with race, including, but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, and protective hairstyles.” The law was created after Andrew Johnson, a Black high school wrestler, was forced to cut his dreadlocks off to be eligible to compete in a match in 2018, drawing national attention.