In a high-profile gesture Friday to one of the nation’s largest communities of South Asian Sikhs, the county sheriff of greater Houston announced that a serving Sikh officer will be allowed to wear his faith’s traditional beard and turban while on patrol.
The move, a longtime demand of Sikh activists, made the Harris County Sheriff’s Office one of the first few police forces in the nation – along with Washington, D.C. and Riverside, Ca. – to permit Sikhs to wear the “articles of faith” that their religion requires of devout members.
“By making these religious accommodations, we will ensure that (our) office reflects the community we serve, one of the most culturally rich and diverse in America,” Sheriff Adrian Garcia said in a statement. “Deputies need to not only understand, respect and communicate with all segments of the population, but represent it as well.”
Sikh leaders in Houston and Washington welcomed the announcement, and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) circulated Internet photos of Garcia shaking hands with Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal, 37, who was wearing a blue police uniform, navy blue turban and short beard.
“With this policy, one of the largest sheriff’s offices in the country has affirmed that a person does not have to choose between their faith and a career of service,” said Jasjit Singh, executive director of SALDEF in Washington. The group’s Houston representative said the move would help the law enforcement agency “attract the best and brightest from across our community to serve.”
Sikhism is a traditional South Asian religion that prizes qualities of discipline, duty, charity and self-sacrifice. Practicing male Sikhs never cut their hair and wear it under wrapped turbans, as well as grow beards. On ceremonial occasions, they wear small metal daggers at their waists as a reminder of their faith’s martial history.
Sikh organizations have been pressing local and federal security agencies for years to allow their members to serve while wearing beards and turbans.
In 2012, the D.C. police force became the first in the country to allow Sikh officers to wear turbans and beards, as well as metal bracelets and decorative daggers inside their clothes. Last year, in response to their demands, the Pentagon announced new regulations that ensured the rights of religious minority members in the armed forces to display their beliefs, such as by wearing a turban or scarf, as long as it does not interfere with military order or readiness.
There are at least 200,000 Sikhs of South Asian ancestry in the United States, mostly from India. Some Sikh groups claim the number is as high as 700,000. Many are middle-class, educated professionals in a wide range of occupations. Their numbers have grown significantly since the 1970s, with large concentrations in urban areas including New York and Los Angeles. Sikh leaders said there are about 10,000 in the Houston region.
Because of their turbans and beards, Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims and have faced harassment and periodic attacks in recent years, especially after the terror attacks of Sep. 11, 2001. In 2012, a white supremacist gunman attacked a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., killing 6 Sikh worshippers.
In Houston, a misunderstanding and confrontation with deputy sheriffs at the home of a Sikh family in 2008 was the original impetus for Sheriff Garcia’s outreach to Sikhs after his election in 2009. The family called to complain of a burglary, but deputies who arrived were reportedly alarmed to find men in the home wearing beards and turbans and carrying small daggers. They called for extra officers and began interrogating the family.
“All that is in the past now,” said Bobby Singh, a SALDEF official in Houston. Garcia, he said, sought to make a fresh start with the Sikh community and other foreign minority groups in the diverse metropolitan area. “He promised to make things right, and today you are seeing the end result,” Singh said. “Now we have more opportunity to serve in law enforcement. It’s a win-win for everyone.”