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Former Penn Police officer Joseph Lewis claims he has a skin condition that prevents him from shaving and thereby adhering to appearance standards.

Credit: Julio Sosa

Joseph Lewis had been a Penn Police officer for close to six years before his sergeant told him to shave or go home, according to his legal complaint.

A debate over the alleged medical reasons for him to keep his beard led to his eventual dismissal from the force. A lawsuit filed last month claims the University racially discriminated against him by asking him to shave.

Lewis began his career as a Penn cop on April 13, 2009.

His attorney, Timothy Creech, said Lewis was required to attend a disciplinary hearing for allegedly claiming falsely that his supervisor instructed him to shave. During the hearing, the sergeant admitted he had told Lewis to shave, Creech said.

Lewis is a black man who was diagnosed with pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB), a skin reaction in which the skin becomes inflamed after shaving, especially around ingrown hairs, he claimed in the suit. This condition, according to the lawsuit, affects black men disproportionately.

The suit claims if Lewis were to shave his beard cleanly, it would create areas of open skin that could become infected, especially due to his interaction with the public while on the job.

Penn Police, like many other forces, has an appearance standard which does not allow an officer to maintain a beard while serving, Creech said. A spokesperson for the Division of Public Safety would not comment on any aspects of the lawsuit, including any details about the beard policy, citing its policy against commenting on pending litigation.

A waiver is available for medical conditions through which an officer may be allowed to keep a beard as long as it is under one quarter of an inch in length.

However, when Lewis applied for the waiver in August 2015, the complaint says, he found the process a bit more complicated than he expected.

Creech said after Lewis submitted his waiver certifying that he had PFB, the Division of Public Safety “decided that it wasn’t happy,” and “found a number of different pretexts to complain about his work.”

DPS continued to find other reasons to reprimand Lewis and made the work environment very hostile, Creech said. Prior to this, Creech said Lewis’ record was exemplary.

The University said that it would abide by the waiver, but Creech said that when Lewis applied for it, “they basically drove him out of the force.”

He is unsure why the police force was insistent that Lewis shave his beard.

“There are some cases where people need to wear respirator masks, and that would interfere, but there was no such issue here,” Creech said.

DPS did not cite this conflict as a reason for his release, but indicated it was due to issues over family leave and a failure to update his personal information, Creech said.

“When he tried to exercise the medical waiver because of his condition, they came up with reasons to complain,” he said.

Dealing with this condition was not a new issue for Lewis, but something he had been dealing with for most of his life, although it had recently gotten worse.

“He thought he could just get this waiver and that would be it,” Creech said. “It is not like he was on the force for a couple of weeks before this. He was a pretty long-standing officer and a decorated marine.”