Every afternoon for the past month, police officer Jeff Robinson puts on his blue Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) uniform and reports to the 6th District station for his night shift on the streets of Southeast. But before Robinson teams up with a partner and hops into a cruiser, his immediate supervisor sends him back homeon the orders of the 6th District captain.
Robinson hasn’t gotten the cold shoulder from his higher-ups for neglecting his handgun, roughing up suspects, or any other violation of the department’s code of conduct. The problem is his hairstyle.
Last summer, after reading books like Fascinating Bible Facts and I Rastafari, Robinson, 23, began to grow dreads. And last December, 6th District Captain Joshua Ederheimer, who is white, asked him to get a haircut. “He told me, ‘Your hair is inappropriate,’” recalls Robinson, who has been an officer for over three years. Ederheimer also made Robinson keep his police hat on in the station at all timesa requirement that applied to no other officers. When the union intervened, he took it off.
“Making him wear his hat was like making him wear a ‘Kick me’ sign,” says Diane Seltzer, Robinson’s lawyer. “Look at him,” she says, pointing to Robinson. “There’s nothing wrong with his hair. This is a clear case of discrimination. Can you say, ‘white against black’?”
In late February, Seltzer filed discrimination charges against Ederheimer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and MPD. Ever since then, Ederheimer has declined to avail himself of Robinson’s services. “Every evening I reported to work, and my immediate supervisor waved his hand goodbye and said, ‘This is coming from Capt. Ederheimer and not from me, but I have orders to send you home.’”
According to Seltzer, Ederheimer requested a written statement from Robinson on why he has defied the captain’s orders to cut his dreads. Robinson wrote, “After reviewing the orders that the department is guided by, I didn’t know I was in any violation, so I don’t understand why I should have to cut my hair.” Adds Robinson, “You see so many people, left and right, with hair covering their ears, their eyeseverything they’re told not to do.”
Robinson is referring to MPD’s general order for personal appearance, a dress and grooming code he claims to obey to the letter. And he appears to be right: His short dreadlocks are neat and clean, don’t stick out from under his hat, don’t hang over his ears, and don’t flow over his shirt collar. Now, if he had “MPD” carved into his head, there might be a problem, but dreadlocks do not fall under the verboten category of extreme or fad haircuts.
Ederheimer, however, isn’t the only one of Robinson’s superiors who objects to his hair. According to Robinson, 6th District Inspector John Daniels, who is black, recently approached Robinson and asked for his shaving waiver. Robinson is one of several MPD officers exempt from the department’s shaving requirement because he suffers from pseudofollicultis barbae, a skin condition that makes shaving painful. “I’ve had a waiver since I was a cadet,” says Robinson, referring to the authorization issued by the department’s medical services division. The harassment didn’t end there, says Robinson, who complains that Daniels scolded him for having a dirty uniform and made him guard the rear door of the station. “He said it wasn’t secured,” Robinson says.
Robinson insists his troubles with management date back only as far back as his dreadlocks. “I feel my life has turned into ‘before the hair and after the hair,’” he says.
Before the hair, in fact, Robinson had racked up five letters of commendation in the previous year alone. After Robinson and his partner responded to a holdup, apprehending a suspect who robbed a cash register, Robinson received a commanding officer’s commendation stating, in part, “The officer’s professionalism and close adherence to police procedure will increase the probability of a successful prosecution.” Another letter, from a woman who labels herself an appreciative citizen, cites the “tremendous impact that Robinson has had in the neighborhood.”
In the past 13 months, Robinson has made 44 arrests, an impressive tally considering that for seven of those months he was anchored to an administrative desk job.
Although Robinson loves rounding up perps, he won’t make compromises on his hairstyle, which he regards as an affirmation of his African heritage and an expression of a spiritual commitment to God. Rastas believe that wearing dreadlocks sensitizes them to the dangers around them. “I felt like I needed some kind of spiritual guidance, with officers being killed every day,” he says. “It felt right for what I did. It felt natural.”
Currently, there are eight members of the police force sporting dreads. “When you have locks, you’re not supposed to have a job,” says an officer with dreadlocks who last July filed an EEOC suit similar to Robinson’s. “You’re supposed to be a vendor. Looking the way we do is a contradiction to society.”
Dreadlocks, the officer says, even boost his job performance: “I actually fit in. It works for what I’m doing as an officer.” Although the officer’s case against MPD was settled in less than three weeks, he still carries a lot of resentment for the place that butters his bread. “What you have here is a bully situation, where one person seeks to take away our individual beliefs. He’s saying we’re not supposed to have any religious conviction. We’re just supposed to be soldiers, just people in blue.”
MPD brass has issued a boilerplate response to queries about Robinson’s status. “We can’t really comment on his case until we know exactly what the charges are,” says press liaison Sgt. Joe Gentile. When told the charges are discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion, and personal appearance, Gentile responds, “All I can tell you is that if an officer doesn’t fall into compliance with the general order for personal appearance, corrective action can be taken.” And what of the eight other officers with dreadlocks? “I’m sorry, but maybe this one is different,” he says.
Seltzer says Robinson isn’t trying to make a statement with his suit. “Here’s a good cop who just wants to do his job without these hassles, which don’t benefit anybody. Why don’t the police just concern themselves with solving crimes?” she asks.
For now, Robinson spends his days with his 4-month-old child. Sometimes he walks around his housing development looking for suspicious activity. He makes his daily trip to and from the station. He usually comes home despondent. “My wife has been very supportive, but she’s wearing down. It’s caused problems in our marriage. She’s scared I’m going to lose my job. She says I’m different than I used to be,” he says.
He continues, his halo of curls bobbing up and down, “I guess I am different. But I felt better and I still feel better now. I have to believe that God will win over the department.” CP