Police officer sues department over hairstyle

Officer Chian Weekes-Rivera wearing Bantu knots in her hair.

A 10-year veteran of the Maplewood Police Department has filed a suit against the township after she was disciplined for a hairstyle she wore to work.

On Aug. 20, Officer Chian Weekes-Rivera wore Bantu knots, which is a traditional African hairstyle where the hair is sectioned off and wrapped into a series of knots. On Aug. 31, Weekes-Rivera was notified of an Internal Affairs complaint regarding her “violation” of department rules and regulations regarding manner of dress on duty.

“The important part of this is that Chian has been wearing various hairstyles, including these bantu knots, for the last 10 years,” said John D. Coyle, the attorney representing Weekes-Rivera in the matter.

In addition to Weekes-Rivera, her supervising sergeants were disciplined for “failure to supervise” when they did not take action against Weekes-Rivera.

The suit, which was filed against the township and department Capt. Peter Kuenze, cites New Jersey’s Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (“CROWN”) Act.

The Act was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy exactly one year to the day after Andrew Johnson, an African-American high school wrestler at Buena Regional High School, was forced to cut off his dreadlocks in order to compete in a match on Dec. 19, 2018.

“No one should be made to feel uncomfortable or be discriminated against because of their natural hair,” Murphy said at the time.

Weekes-Rivera has previously sued the department over its now-defunct Covid-19 vaccine mandate. That action is still pending in district court.

The suit over the hairstyle cites the fact that Weekes-Rivera was featured in online and print promotional material showing the “SHEroes” of the department. Weeke-Rivera talks about how she likes the diversity within the police department and the community.

The suit seeks compensatory damages and injunctive relief for Weekes-Rivera. It says she was subject to discrimination, embarrassment, shame, and a loss of dignity and also seeks punitive damages; attorneys’ fees and costs of suit and any other relief the court deems appropriate.

A request for comment from the police department was referred to the township, which put out a statement saying the Township Committee was made aware of Officer Weekes-Rivera’s lawsuit on Nov. 8. “In response to the lawsuit, and based on the recently adopted CROWN Act, the Township Committee directed its Police Department to immediately review its policies to ensure compliance with the law.”

A rear view of Weekes-Rivera’s Bantu knots.