Woman sues Ferndale, claims cops forced her to remove hijab for booking photo

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

A Muslim woman who claims Ferndale police forced her to remove her Islamic headscarf for a booking photo in June has filed a federal lawsuit against the city.

Helana Bowe filed the suit Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Her lawsuit names the city, Ferndale Police Chief Dennis Emmi, two Ferndale police officers and a police sergeant as defendants.

Helana Bowe at a September news conference where she alleged Ferndale police forced her to remove her hijab for a booking photo, violating her civil rights.

She is seeking damages as well as a court order forbidding the police department from requiring the removal of any and all religious head coverings for booking photos. Bowe is also asking the court to order Ferndale police to never disseminate the photo taken of Bowe without her hijab, remove it from the public record and to adopt nondiscriminatory policies to prevent issues in the future.

Her lawsuit comes about a month after the Michigan chapter of Council on American Islamic Relations, or MI-CAIR, held a news conference with Bowe and called on the city to address their allegations. Officials for the group said it would only file a lawsuit against the city if it failed to address the alleged violations of Bowe's civil rights. 

"By failing to formally respond to our concerns raised on behalf of our client's civil rights having been violated, we were left with no other option but to sue the Ferndale Police," Dawud Walid, MI-CAIR's executive director, said in a statement Friday. "Though the city touts itself as being a municipality of diversity and inclusion, it appears that its police department is not serious about this claim when it comes to Muslims." 

City officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

However, Ferndale police Chief Dennis Emmi said last month that his officers "were simply following departmental policy, which includes photographing hair as an important identifying feature. Now, in reviewing the case and circumstances, I see the opportunity for our policies to evolve to better meet the needs of our community.”

He also said the city would reach out to CAIR to discuss how the department could "show increased sensitivity and better serve citizens of the Muslim faith. Additionally, City Manager Joseph Gacioch said last month that he has tasked the city’s newly established Racial Equity Action Team with delivering a religious and cultural sensitivity training to the entire City of Ferndale staff."

Gacioch said in a statement: "We recognize the need for further knowledge and guidance, we are absolutely open to accepting it and updating our policies and practices, and we look forward to a positive and productive partnership with our friends at the American Islamic Relations Council."

Bowe's lawsuit stems from a June 21, 2021, traffic stop on Eight Mile Road in Detroit. The road is shared between the cities of Ferndale and Detroit and is routinely patrolled by both police departments.

According to Bowe and MI-CAIR, she was stopped by Ferndale police officers. The police told Bowe she had an expired license plate tab. Bowe and the group dispute the tab was expired.

The officers also asked her if she had any weapons on her to which she answered that she had an electric stun gun in her purse. They searched Bowe's purse and arrested her because of the weapon, which police said is illegal. State law requires civilians who carry a stun gun to have a valid license to carry a concealed pistol. Bowe did not have one, according to MI-CAIR.

As police processed her, a male officer told Bowe she had to remove her hijab, or headscarf, and take a booking photo if she wanted to be released, according to Bowe and the group.

At last month's press conference, MI-CAIR officials said Bowe initially told police she couldn't remove the head covering due to her religious beliefs, but acquiesced when a female officer offered to take the picture. However, a male officer watched the photo being taken through a window.

Bowe also said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the encounter with police.

"The Ferndale Police Department’s entire conduct on June 21, 2021, was problematic, starting with its dragnetting of the city of Detroit side of Eight Mile road looking to engage in traffic stops of individuals who have no connection with the city of Ferndale," Amy Doukoure, staff attorney for CAIR-MI, said in a statement. "The Ferndale Police’s problematic conduct only escalated when officers allegedly violated Ms. Bowe’s constitutionally protected religious rights by subjecting her to a cross-gender search unnecessarily and forcibly removing her hijab for a booking photograph."

Doukour also said it's surprising a city that prides itself on its vast diversity and claims to strive for inclusivity "finds itself silent on its own insensitive treatment of a religious minority in their care and custody."

CAIR-Michigan has represented women in two similar cases in Metro Detroit. In one of the cases, a 36-year-old woman sued the city of Detroit and the Michigan Department of Corrections in federal court, alleging she was forced to remove her hijab while a booking photo was taken in 2019 at the Detroit Detention Center.

Last month, Doukoure said judges have ruled in favor of Muslim women in both cases. She also said a major concern for Muslim women who have their booking photo taken without hijabs is the pictures are available to the public indefinitely.

cramirez@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @CharlesERamirez