Police officer Rob Williams was ordered by his commander to cut off his braids. He didn’t, and so the highly decorated 29-year-old south-side patrolman was suspended. “I was aware that I ran the risk of being labeled a troublemaker,” he says. “But I didn’t think it would go this far.”

According to his supporters, Williams is the sort of “bright young man” who should be one of the department’s rising stars. His father was a cop: “The department’s in my blood,” he jokes. He graduated from De La Salle Institute (Mayor Daley’s alma mater), where he was a good student, played football, ran track, and played trumpet in the marching band. “I was conservative looking in high school,” he says. “I had a low cut [hairstyle].”

After graduating from high school in 1992 he headed off to Hampton University in Virginia. He joined a fraternity, earned a degree in sociology, came home, and started working as a substitute teacher in the public schools. In 1999 he joined the police department. “Why become a cop? It’s simple–community service,” he says. “I believe this stuff–service to the community, service to mankind. You have to give back.”

Williams was assigned to a near-south-side district. He’s been given seven commendations for acts of bravery. He helped arrest an armed robber and helped rescue tenants from a high-rise fire, for which he and three other officers received commendations from Mayor Daley at a City Council ceremony on November 1, 2000. “Without regard to their personal safety, these brave and devoted officers raced into the burning building and ran from apartment to apartment, pounding on doors to alert the sleeping residents,” the text reads. “The officers escorted all the tenants, including seven children and one blind adult, safely out of the building.”

Around that time Williams started to let his hair grow. “I wanted to have braids,” he says. “In the early stage of growing it I wore twists. If you wear it in twists for a while it will lock on its own–it just naturally locks. Then it grows and grows that way until you cut it.”

He ties his braids in a ponytail and sweeps them up under his hat when he’s on the job. “You wouldn’t even know I had braids if you saw me on the job,” he says. “I get it trimmed regularly. I brush it. I shampoo it. What can I say? It’s my hair.”

Everyone from football players to the new CTA board president sports braids, but they’re still rare on policemen. Williams says he occasionally overheard other officers comment, “Why does he wear his hair like that?” But he never thought he was violating department policy. “I’ve seen other police officers with braids,” he says, “and I’ve seen white officers with ponytails.”

On July 12, 2002, Williams was called into the office of his supervisor, Commander Charles Williams (no relation). “He said that though he didn’t think my hair was a problem, someone else had brought it to his attention,” says Rob Williams. “He said he had looked up the rule and found that my hair was in general violation. He said it needed to be changed to come in compliance with the general order. My whole question to him was, what’s compliance?”

Williams says he was caught off guard by the meeting. “I’d never had any troubles with Commander Williams,” he says. “In fact, he was the one who signed the commendation I got for arresting the armed robber.” He says the commander said he wanted to think about the situation before issuing an order. “He said, ‘Let me do some research.’ Then he called me back on the next day and he said, ‘What do you call that hairstyle?’ I said, ‘I call it hair.’ I wasn’t trying to be a wise guy. That’s the way I see it. I told him, ‘This is my hair, what I was born with. This is what God gave me.’ His response was, ‘It’s fine for now. Just keep it off your ears and above your collar.’ Then he said, ‘But don’t be surprised if I call you back and tell you to cut it off.'”

The next day Commander Williams ordered Williams to come to his office again and told him that the department’s personal-appearance code states that “neck hair will not extend below the top edge of the uniform shirt collar, nor cover any part of the ears,” and that the hair “not be sculpted” in “any kind of radical fashion” such as “a Mohawk or Dreadlocks.”

“The commander said that as far as he was concerned my hair was in dreadlocks,” says Williams. “I was trying to explain that these aren’t dreadlocks, that dreadlocks are totally different. They’re a whole way of life that I don’t have. Rastafarians are the only ones who wear true dreadlocks. They don’t comb them. They don’t wash them. People who wear true dreadlocks are night and day from people like me who are doing what I do with my hair.”

The commander didn’t buy the distinction, says Williams. “His whole thing is, ‘I’m the commander, and what I say goes.’ It’s just, ‘This is the policy, and you’re in violation, and you need to come into compliance or there will be repercussions.'”

In retrospect, Williams acknowledges that he was being a little passive-aggressive in his dealings with the commander. “I never stated I wasn’t going to cut off my hair, but I never said that I would either. I’d just say ‘Yes, sir’ to let him know that I had heard what he was saying. The thing is, I wasn’t going to cut off my braids. I didn’t think it was right of them to make me.”

On August 20, Williams says, he was called into the office of another supervisor, Sergeant Elvin Boone. “He said, ‘I’m sending you home without pay ’cause your hair’s not in compliance.’ I said, ‘What’s meant by compliance?’ He said, ‘You know what’s meant by compliance, and I’m not going to schmooze around with this shit!’ I didn’t say anything to that–just ‘Yes, sir.’ Then he told me to leave.”

When Williams returned for his next workday Boone again sent him home without pay. He also wrote Williams up, in what the department calls a complaint register, for “failure to comply with the provisions of the General Order entitled uniform/Citizen’s dress and personal equipment.” According to the register, “Officer Williams reported for duty on 20 Aug 02 with his hair styled in Dreadlocks which is not permitted.” Boone also recommended that Williams be suspended without pay for 20 days.

At that point Williams did what many black cops do when they get in trouble with the brass. He called on Pat Hill, president of the African American Police League. “When he told me what was going on, I thought, you mean to tell me folks around here have nothing better to do with their time than harass this young man?” she says. “These are the 2000s–everybody’s wearing braids. I have braids. No one bothers me. There’s a female sergeant I know, she’s had them for 20 years. No one’s bothered her. Why are they bothering him? It’s this commander saying, ‘I’m in charge and you’re gonna do what I say.’ And the department goes along ’cause the department always goes along.”

Hill accompanied Williams to the Fraternal Order of Police offices. The union officials listened to his story, looked at the rules, and came to the conclusion that he was right, that his braids weren’t dreadlocks. But they suggested he might as well make life easier for himself by doing what his commander ordered. Williams says, “They basically told me, you’re going to open up a whole can of worms with this, so just cut them off.”

He didn’t see it that way. “I can’t go along with the just-do-what-they-tell-you attitude,” he says. “My hair’s not violating police orders. It doesn’t touch my shoulders or go over my ears when it’s under my hat. It’s not dreadlocks. If my hair violates no rules, why cut it off? Why should a police officer have to follow a command that’s meaningless, subjective, and arbitrary?”

He decided to keep his braids and fight the 20-day suspension. He appealed the complaint register to the Police Board, a civilian oversight body, arguing that his hair didn’t violate department policy. He says the issue wasn’t so much racial–both Commander Williams and Sergeant Boone are black–as generational. “This is just not how they wear their hair,” he says. “Some people couldn’t believe I fought it. People warned me, ‘You can’t fight the department like this–you’d better watch your back.'”

While the appeal was pending Williams was allowed to go back to work. Then on May 31, 2003, Boone wrote him up in another complaint register, following an incident at a public-housing complex. “We had been directed to a building to cover a call regarding narcotics,” says Williams. “But when we got there we didn’t see anything going on. We were leaving the building when my partner saw someone he knew. He stayed behind to talk to him while I went outside to the car. Well, Boone drove up and noticed I’d left the building without my partner. He wrote me up for leaving my partner alone in the building. It’s ridiculous. He was just looking for something to get at me with. He might as well have written me up for not tying my shoe.”

The complaint register signed by Boone accuses Williams of “inattention to duty” as well as “insubordination” for not following Boone’s order “to return into the building to locate [his] partner.” Williams’s partner, who asked not to be identified, says, “Listen, I don’t want to get involved in this haircut thing, but I can tell you Rob didn’t do anything wrong.”

A few days after the incident Commander Williams transferred Williams to another beat. “Commander Williams called me into his office,” says Williams. “He basically told me, you’re the troublemaker. His exact words were ‘It seems you can’t get along with people. I’m shipping you to Altgeld. Enjoy the suburbs.'”

The Altgeld Gardens public-housing complex is on the city’s far southeast side. “I used to be at work in about 15 minutes,” says Williams, who lives near Midway Airport. “Now I have to give myself an hour to get to work. I guess this is why the union was warning me to just go along with what they say.”

Neither Commander Williams nor Sergeant Boone responded to phone calls asking for comment, but department spokesman David Bayless defends them. “Officer Williams was facing a suspension for deliberately failing to comply with a written direct order,” he says. “To say he’s getting punished because his hair’s too long is inaccurate. He had a commander who ordered him to cut it, and he didn’t cut it.”

Williams won a partial reprieve in November, when the Police Board voted not to sustain his 20-day suspension for violating the department’s personal-appearance code. And last summer he filed a racial discrimination complaint against the department with the state’s Department of Human Rights. “I contend this is racial discrimination,” he says, “because I know of a white police officer with a ponytail, and he’s never been ordered to cut his hair.” But Williams still faces punishment for leaving a building without his partner.

Hill says police officials should swallow their pride, drop all charges against Williams, and return him to his old beat. “Rob’s good at what he does–he’s not kicking ass, taking names, and abusing people,” she says. “He looks like someone the community can relate to. They should be promoting him instead of making his life miserable.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.