St. Paul PD probes hijab costume photo

The St. Paul Police Department launched an internal investigation Monday in response to an online photo said to show an officer from the department wearing a culturally insensitive costume.

The man in the photo is dressed as a Muslim woman. He wears lipstick, eye shadow and a red hijab or headscarf, with a mobile phone tucked into one side of it.

Here's the tweet, provided by Mukhtar Ibrahim, a former intern with MPR News' All Things Considered. The story continues below.

St. Paul Police (@sppdpio) says it's investigating an alleged policeman dressed as a Somali woman. #CultureNotCostume

— Mukhtar Ibrahim (@mukhtaryare) February 4, 2013

A caption, that has since been deleted from Twitter, describes it as a Halloween costume and identifies the man as an officer in the St. Paul Police Department. The man in the photo wears a name tag bearing the Target logo. The name on the tag is illegible.

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Police spokesman Howie Padilla confirmed the man in the photo is an officer in the St. Paul Police Dept. The officer occasionally worked off-duty providing security at a local Target store, company spokeswoman Molly Snyder said. Neither Target nor the police would release the officer's name.

Kassim Busuri, who works as the education director at a St. Paul Islamic center, said the image is offensive.

"Our sisters are wearing this. Our mothers, our aunts, our cousins, all of them are wearing this. It's part of religion. It's part of culture," Busuri said. "And for somebody to make fun of it, it's not good."

The image was first posted online in November, but Busuri and other members of the Somali American community discovered it Sunday and brought it to the attention of the St. Paul Police Department.

Padilla said Chief Tom Smith takes the situation seriously.

"We've spent a lot of time and a lot of hours and a lot of effort to make inroads and to work with our Somali Muslim communities, and that is really what raised the concern to the chief, not only the image itself, but the perception someone from the department would be included in that," Padilla said.

An official statement from Smith, released late Monday, read:

"After an image was brought to my attention this morning, I ordered an immediate investigation to determine all of the facts surrounding it. The Saint Paul Police Department has worked hard to establish a strong and respectful relationship with our Muslim communities, and I will not allow these types of images to erode that relationship. Diversity is one of the greatest strengths of the City of Saint Paul, and we expect each one of our officers to respect and take pride in serving each of our diverse communities."

Padilla says the investigation is ongoing. He said dressing in a culturally insensitive costume could be considered conduct unbecoming of an officer.

"What we're investigating isn't the image itself. It's not that the image made it out to social media," Padilla said. "What we're investigating is that the action the image captured. The action is what concerns us."

The image was posted to Twitter and the photo-sharing website Instagram by an account belonging to a man named Michael Hart. According to his Facebook account, Hart is an assets protection specialist at Target.

A Target spokeswoman released a written statement that said, in part, the company is "appalled by this photo" and does "not tolerate or condone discrimination or harassment of any sort."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations applauded the department for its swift response to the photo.

Lori Saroya, executive director of the group's Minnesota chapter, says the St. Paul Police Department generally has a good relationship with the city's Somali and Muslim communities, and sees the photo as an isolated incident.

"I think it seems to be one officer who showed really poor judgment," Saroya said. "I really feel like that if he gets the diversity training he needs to really understand what the hijab means to a Muslim woman, how it's not funny when he puts it on, that will really help resolve this issue."

Minnesota Public Radio News is not naming the officer allegedly appearing in the photo, because his identity has not been confirmed.