A San Francisco police officer took a knee with George Floyd protesters during a massive demonstration in the Mission District. The next day, his supervisors sent him home early for insubordination.
Officer Rubin Rhodes, a five-year veteran assigned to Mission Station, was the first of at least two officers to kneel outside the station Wednesday in a show of support for the crowd protesting police brutality.
The following morning, Rhodes was accused of being insubordinate after coming to work with his earrings on in an alleged violation of department policy, which prohibits male officers from wearing earrings on-duty.
The problem is, Rhodes wears the earrings to work nearly every day without issue. And he also believes he should not be restricted from wearing earrings because he identifies as non-binary.
“Why would you send somebody home for an earring?” said Rhodes, who stopped short of calling it retaliation. “It’s just nonsensical.”
Rhodes is one of many officers from across the country who have been photographed kneeling at protests over the last week during the largest uprising the nation has seen in decades.
Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a San Francisco Police Department spokesperson, declined to comment on personnel issues. But he noted that numerous members of the department including Police Chief Bill Scott and an assistant chief have taken a knee publicly to honor Floyd.
“The gesture (where safe and appropriate) is consistent with community policing policies that encourage officers to demonstrate empathy and understanding for the diverse communities they serve,” he said.
San Francisco police officers are barred from engaging in political activity while on-duty. Last month, for instance, the San Francisco Police Officers Association was heavily criticized for giving officers masks to protect against the coronavirus that displayed the “thin blue line” flag.
Rhodes argued that his action was nonpolitical. He said the knee represented his opposition to conduct unbecoming of police officers and him sympathizing with the anger of peaceful protesters.
“They just wanted to see that law enforcement was on their side and that we didn’t agree with the injustices that are going on around the country, which we don’t because that’s not what we stand for,” Rhodes said.
“They are tired about the lack of action from our law enforcement and I’m not going stand for it either,” he added.
While Rhodes refers to himself as a black man and with the pronouns “he” or “him,” he has gone to some lengths to make his non-binary identity clear.
He changed his driver license last year to reflect his neutral status and wrote a memo to his bosses.
He has only found himself in trouble for wearing earrings once before, when he was counseled for failing to adhere to the policy several years ago.
He questioned why the department would choose to send him home now when all officers have their days off canceled due to protests.
Grooming standards for officers are laid out under a Department General Order from 1994 that sets out different guidelines for male and female officers, without addressing those who identify as gender non-binary.
“Male officers shall be clean shaven with sideburns neatly trimmed when reporting for duty,” the policy reads. “Female officers’ hair shall be clean, trimmed and present a groomed appearance.”
The policy refers to another DGO from 2007 for guidelines on jewelry. The order only allows “female officers” to wear one earring in each ear.
Rhodes said the policy might as well be from the year 1804.
“This policy is inherently sexist and discriminatory,” he said.
He has raised the issue with the command staff, and said he believed Chief Scott planned to remove any mention of gender.
But that does not appear to have happened so far.
Rhodes said he had about nine hours left on his shift when a sergeant and lieutenant at Mission Station sent him home.
He believes he will have to use personal time to make up for the lost wages.
When asked whether he feared discipline for speaking out, Rhodes told the Examiner that he did not.
“I’m tired of it,” Rhodes said. “If I don’t speak up, who will?”
This story has been updated to include additional comment.