How much money is a facial hair fight worth?

May 14, 2008 6:03:37 PM PDT
Four Houston police officers are taking on the city in a lawsuit over their facial hair. They want to keep it. The police department wants it off.The controversy began in 2005 when Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt began enforcing protocol that required all police officers be clean shaven. Since then, several African American police officers have filed a lawsuit, saying the policy violates their civil rights. Defending against that lawsuit could cost taxpayers lots of money.

HPD Sgt. Shelby Stewart insists his lawsuit is much more than just the right to wear a goatee. He says a skin condition makes it painful and uncomfortable to been clean shaven, and the police chief's policy is unconstitutional.

"We're suing the city because our civil rights have been violated," Sgt. Stewart explained. "We've been taken out of uniform. There are certain rights and privileges that other officers have that we do not have."

Sgt. Stewart is one of four officers who filed the federal lawsuit last year. The city council was faced with the decision of whether or not to spend $150,000 to hire outside attorneys.

Houston City Council Member Pam Holm said, "I guess my main concern is that we're engaging in a great expense for our taxpayers and everybody on a policy that I'm not sure we need to be suing over."

While some council members didn't see the point of spending the money, others say defending the lawsuit is crucial for public safety.

"My understanding is that with beards, gas masks and equipment that you need to use for your own public safety cannot fit properly," said Houston City Council Member Sue Lovell.

The city council chose to delay the vote until next week. Mayor Bill White is supporting Chief Hurtt's ability to make such policies, and the attorneys filing the suit say they'll be happy to take it to court.

Attorney Athill Muhammed said, "If the policy is unconstitutional, it needs to be challenged. Just because there is a policy, or just because a head makes policy, does not necessarily mean that it's right."

City council is expected to decide on whether to spend the extra money on outside counsel next week. In the meantime, all four police officers continue to work in the police department. They are not wearing uniforms, just civilian clothes on the job.

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