Landmark Ruling Nets First Sikh Officer with Turban, Beard in Harris County

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Deputy Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal getting his badge pinned on his turban by Sheriff Garcia

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: It was a matter of pride for the 50 or so members of the local Sikh community who had gathered in the Officer’s Dining Hall of the Harris County Sherriff’s Administrative Offices on 701 N. San Jacinto St, next to Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston.  They came to celebrate not only one of their own becoming a police officer, but to witness history in making as one more visage of mainstream rule crumbled to the power of the diversity that is the cornerstone of this region’s appeal.

In announcing the department new policy of accommodation to the religious tenets of the Sikh faith, Harris County Sherriff Adrian Garcia acknowledged the role of that diversity and members of his staff were quick to point out that people of other faiths were also included in the department’s staff. However, none will be as noticeable as the new Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal, 37, who will be allowed to keep his beard and turban and other articles prescribed by his Sikh faith as he starts to take of his patrolling duties in a squad car with his partner officer.

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Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Bobby Singh at the mic and Jasjit Singh, Executive Director of SALDEF at the media event last Friday, February 6 at the HCSO’s office in downtown Houston.

“By making these religious accommodations, we will ensure that HCSO reflects the community we serve, one of the most culturally rich and diverse in America,” Garcia said. Garcia made the high-profile announcement to the media on Friday afternoon, February 6, surrounded by his command staff and members of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, whose Executive Director Jasjit Singh flew in from Washington, DC for the occasion. SALDEF’s Houston regional representative Bobby Singh had worked with the Sherriff’s office for the past five years to make this accommodation policy a reality. Also in attendance was Dr. Devinder Bhatia, a respected local cardio-vascular surgeon and a Director of the Harris County Sherriff’s Foundation.

Getting due recognition for the Sikh faith had become high on the agenda for Bobby Singh and SALDEF after an incident in 2008 in which Harris County deputies were called to respond to a burglary at a Sikh home. They became agitated when they found men with beards and turbans and wearing the ceremonial dagger that is a tenet of their faith and arrested a young Sikh woman.  The Sikh community responded with orientation meetings with the department and Garcia made several appearances at area Sikh gurudwaras.

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Deputy Dhaliwal at the mic, with Sheriff Garcia, the HCSO Command Staff, Bobby Singh, Dr. Devinder Bhatia, Jasjit Singh and his partner officer.

The move makes the HCSO the largest police force in the country to allow Sikhs to wear turbans, beards and other articles of faith in the course of duty, though both Dhaliwal and Jasjit Singh went to extreme lengths to downplay the new deputy’s wearing of the ceremonial dagger, claiming he was not yet baptized to do so. Dhaliwal, has been with the HCSO for the past four years, two of which as a Detention Officer, but so far has performed his duties clean-shaven and without a turban. It was only in anticipation of the new ruling that he grew his beard over the past few weeks and appeared in a black turban alongside the Sherriff.

Garcia was effusive about the new ruling and said that it will ensure that the HCSO will reflect the community it serves. He started the announcement with the Sikh greeting “Sat Sri Akal” and peppered his statements with Punjabi words, even when he pinned the office’s badge on the apex of Dhaliwal’s turban, similar to the manner in the Indian Armed Forces, referring to him as “Sardarji”, much to the delight of the Sikhs in the audience who responded with a loud “Bole Sone Hal” and a “Sat Sri Akal” response. Dhaliwal acknowledged his own family’s service in the Indian military and spoke of his desire to serve in the police force as the impetus for him to sell of his business and join HCSO. Garcia added that another Sikh had joined the force and was in training, hoping to join patrolling duties by this Spring, and concluded his statements with remarks in Spanish too.

“In doing so, HCSO joins similar accommodations made by the police forces in Washington, DC and Riverside, California,” said Jasjit Singh, lauding Garcia’s decision, adding that “a person does not have to choose between his faith and his career.” Bobby Singh, a local Sikh activist and engineer said he had lobbied HCSO for five years to make this change, after the 2008 incident, and especially after the Sikh massacre at a gurudwara in Wisconsin in 2012.  “What’s past is past,” he said, “This ruling is a win-win for everyone.”

The Sikh community has been in the US for the past 150 years, starting as migrant laborers in California, from which the first Indian-American Congressman, a Sikh, was elected. There are an estimated 200,000 Sikhs in the US, though unofficial estimates peg it as high as 700,000, of which about 10,000 live in the greater Houston area. Last year, the Pentagon made similar accommodations to allow Sikhs to wear turbans or a scarf, keep beards and other articles of their faith.