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NYC agrees to $17.5M settlement in forced removal of religious head coverings lawsuit

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New York City has reached a settlement totaling $17.5 million in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by two Muslim women who were compelled to remove their head coverings for mug shots following their arrests. Jamilla Clark and Arwa Aziz initiated the lawsuit in 2018, citing feelings of shame and exposure when forced to remove their hijabs.

Clark, arrested on January 9, 2017, and Aziz, arrested on August 30, 2017, recounted distressing experiences during their arrests. Clark, arrested for allegedly violating a protective order, described feeling naked and violated when her hijab was removed. Aziz, similarly arrested due to a protective order, expressed feeling broken and exposed in the presence of male police officers and inmates during the photo process.

Initially, city officials defended the practice, claiming it balanced respect for religious customs with law enforcement needs. However, following a policy change in 2020 as part of an initial settlement, the New York Police Department now allows individuals to retain their head coverings for mug shots, with limited exceptions.

The settlement, filed Friday, awaits approval by Judge Analisa Torres of Manhattan federal court. City law department spokesperson Nick Paolucci described the settlement as a positive reform benefiting all parties involved. O. Andrew F. Wilson, representing the women alongside the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, likened the forced removal of religious clothing to a strip search, emphasizing the profound harm to dignity.

Proceeds from the settlement, intended for approximately 4,100 eligible class members, will be shared among them. Wilson clarified that upon approval, funds will be equally distributed among those who respond by a specified deadline, guaranteeing a minimum payment of $7,824 for each eligible individual.

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