A Black police officer in New Jersey who alleges she was disciplined after she wore her hair in a traditional African hairstyle has sued the township where she works and one of her superiors, alleging that she was discriminated against for wearing a natural hairstyle.
Chian Weekes-Rivera, a veteran of the police department in Maplewood Township, about 20 miles west of New York City, alleges in the lawsuit filed last week that the township subjected her “to disciplinary action for having Black hair” in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, or LAD. The law prohibits discrimination and harassment based on race, gender and other individual characteristics.
In addition to the township, the suit, filed in state Superior Court in Essex County, names Peter Kuenzel, a Maplewood police captain, as a defendant. The township, police department and Kuenzel did not immediately return requests for comment.
The suit states that on Aug. 20, Weekes-Rivera, 38, arrived to work with her hair arranged in Bantu knots, a style in which the hair is sectioned and twisted around its base to form a spiral. It can be used to protect hair from damage caused by weather, daily manipulation or other factors. Eleven days later, she received an Internal Affairs complaint notifying her that she had violated the department’s on-duty dress code, according to the lawsuit, which includes a copy of the violation. Weekes-Rivera’s sergeants also were disciplined for “failure to supervise” for having refused to discipline her, the suit states.
In a separate notice that was provided to NBC News, Kuenzel informed Weekes-Rivera that she was in violation of the dress code policy for having worn her hair in “rollers.”
“To get that paper, it was cringeworthy,” she said, growing emotional as she spoke. “I had to ask him questions to stop myself from crying.”
As a gay, Black woman in a predominantly male-driven environment, Weekes-Rivera said she feels added pressure to be strong and was mortified to learn that she was in trouble because of her hair.
“It’s super embarrassing,” she said. “It makes me feel like less than.”
On Sept. 29, Kuenzel informed the disciplined sergeants that the police department’s Internal Affairs Unit had sustained the charge of “failure to supervise,” according to Weekes-Rivera and the lawsuit. The sergeants are not named in the suit.
The suit accuses Maplewood, by and through the police department, “and as aided and abetted” by Kuenzel, of targeting her and subjecting her to “discipline as a result of her race and ethnicity.” Weekes-Rivera has continued to work at the department, but does not know whether the violation will prevent her from advancing.
“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.
New Jersey became a flashpoint on the topic of hair discrimination in December 2018, when Andrew Johnson, a Black varsity high school wrestler with dreadlocks, was forced to cut his hair to participate in a match. Johnson was 16 at the time and went on to win the match. His experience sparked a state civil rights probe.
Weekes-Rivera’s lawsuit, which references Johnson, argues that “Black hair goes beyond just cultural differences” and is an expression of identity and culture.
“I cried when I saw that,” she said, referring to Johnson’s haircut. “I’m a woman with locs. And for this young man to be told, ‘You can’t play because of your hair,’ it’s heartbreaking. What do you tell Black children? What do you tell Black people who just want to love themselves and thrive like everyone else? We can’t control how our hair grows and how we might be different from the masses. To love yourself however you wake up, it’s hard to do.”
The suit cites New Jersey’s CROWN Act, or Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, which made it illegal to discriminate against people based on hairstyles associated with race, including “protective hairstyles.” It was signed a year after Johnson was forced to cut his hair. More than a dozen states have passed versions of the CROWN Act, though an effort to make it a federal law failed in December 2022.
The suit quotes Gov. Phil Murphy, who said when he signed the law: “No one should be made to feel uncomfortable or be discriminated against because of their natural hair.”
Weekes-Rivera, who has a pending case against the department over its now-defunct Covid-19 vaccine mandate, has been with the force since May 2012. She was featured in a video in 2021 titled “Sheroes of the Maplewood Police Department.”
In the video, she said, in part: “The best thing, to me, about working in Maplewood is the diversity of our whole community. Whether it’s the members in leadership in our police department to the members in our community that you meet.”
Coyle said the video illustrates the department’s hypocrisy.
“They highlight her when they want to highlight her, but when she wants to celebrate her heritage, then they come after her,” Coyle said.
Weekes-Rivera said she attends therapy weekly and suffers from anxiety. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys fees, and for the township and Kuenzel to comply with the state law against discrimination. She also wants the township and Kuenzel to produce copies of any department policies or guidelines on how officers style their hair and also any formal complaints made about her hair.
“The reality is, nobody should be subject to discrimination like this and it’s hard to think of a way the the LAD and the CROWN Act could be clearer,” Coyle said.