New Jersey officer disciplined for wearing locs in Bantu knots, supervisors reprimanded for inaction

Chian Weekes-Rivera has filed a lawsuit against the Maplewood Police Department and one of her superiors, accusing them of violating the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

A Black New Jersey police officer has filed a discrimination lawsuit after claiming the authorities reprimanded her for wearing her hair in a traditional protective African style.

NBC News reported Chian Weekes-Rivera, 38, filed the lawsuit last week in Essex County State Superior Court, alleging that on Aug. 20, she arrived at the Maplewood Police Department with her hair sectioned and each section twisted around its base to create a spiral, a style referred to as Bantu knots.

In response, Weekes-Rivera claimed, she was subjected “to disciplinary action for having Black hair,” violating the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which forbids discrimination and harassment based on race, gender, or other personal traits.

A Black police officer in New Jersey has filed a discrimination lawsuit after alleging she was disciplined for wearing her hair in Bantu knots, the style pictured. (Photo: Screenshot/ Sherae)

Her lawsuit names the township and Peter Kuenzel, a Maplewood Township police captain and one of Weeks-Rivera’s supervisors, as defendants.

The lawsuit alleges that Weeks-Rivera received an Internal Affairs complaint 11 days after showing up to work with the hairstyle, warning her she had violated the department’s on-duty dress code. Weekes-Rivera’s sergeants also faced disciplinary action for “failure to supervise” over not reprimanding her, a decision later upheld by Internal Affairs.

“Maplewood is trying to send a chilling message to the entire department that not only are we going to discriminate against Chian,” her attorney John Coyle said, “we are going to hold other people accountable for not discriminating against her.”

NBC reported that Kuenzel warned Weekes-Rivera in a second notice that she had violated the dress code rules by wearing her hair in “rollers.”

As a gay Black woman in a male-dominated environment, she said, she feels extra pressure to be tough and was humiliated to hear she was in trouble because of her hair.

Weekes-Rivera’s lawsuit references Andrew Johnson, a Black varsity high school wrestler who was 16 when he was forced to cut his locs to participate in a competition in December 2018. Johnson went on to win the match, but his ordeal prompted a state civil rights probe.

She also mentions New Jersey’s CROWN Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone based on hairstyles connected with race, including “protective hairstyles.” 

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the legislation into law a year after Johnson had to cut his hair.

“I cried when I saw that,” Weekes-Rivera said regarding 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?”

Weekes-Rivera claimed she goes to therapy weekly and suffers from anxiety. She is requesting compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys’ expenses and that the township and Kuenzel comply with state anti-discrimination laws. 

She also wants the municipality and Kuenzel to produce copies of any formal complaints about her hair, as well as any department standards or instructions on how cops should style their hair.

Weekes-Rivera has been on the force since May 2012 — though she is unsure whether the infraction will prohibit her from progressing — and has a pending lawsuit against the department for its now-defunct COVID-19 vaccine requirement. 

In 2021, she appeared in a video titled “Sheroes of the Maplewood Police Department,” where she stated that the best thing about working in Maplewood is “the diversity of our whole community,” from police department leadership to citizens.

Her attorney said the video demonstrates the department’s hypocrisy, NBC reported.

“They highlight her when they want to highlight her,” Coyle noted, “but when she wants to celebrate her heritage, then they come after her.

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