Chian Weekes-Rivera, a veteran of the police department in Maplewood Township, alleges that she was subjected “to disciplinary action for having Black hair” in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, or LAD.
Weekes-Rivera says she was disciplined after she wore her hair in a traditional African hairstyle – bantu knots.
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.
“It makes me feel like less than.”
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.”
“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.”
The plaintiff says she’s been going to therapy weekly and suffers from anxiety.
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.