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Harris County Sheriff-Elect and Judge Meet with Houston-Area Sikhs

Sheriff-Elect Adrian Garcia commits to a detailed investigation of police misconduct and cultural awareness training for Houston Police Force

Houston, Texas: December 22, 2008


On Sunday, December 14, 2008 at the request of SALDEF Regional Director and long-time friend Bobby Singh, Harris County Texas Sheriff-elect Adrian Garcia met with the Sikh American community at the Sikh Center of Houston, in the aftermath of a recent incident in which a Sikh family was allegedly harassed by Harris County officers after reporting a burglary.

The meeting allowed the Sikh American community to voice their concerns directly to the Sheriff-elect and was also an opportunity for the community to hear from local officials at a time when concerns and fear of the local police are high. At the meeting, Sheriff-elect Garcia remarked that the behavior of the Sheriff Deputies in this incident would not be tolerated under his administration, which takes effect on January 2, 2009.

At the meeting, the Sheriff-elect was presented with framed copies of SALDEF’s Sikh Americans and the Kirpan, and Common Sikh American Head Covering posters by the congregation, to be displayed in his office as a reminder of the diversity within his community. During his comments to the over 200 Sikhs in attendance, Sheriff-elect Garcia committed to instituting “high quality diversity training” for all of his officers – the third largest police force in the United States.

On December 15, 2008, Mr. Singh coordinated a meeting with friend and Harris County Judge Ed Emett, who along with the Harris County Sherrif, is charged with operating the Sherrif's Office The meeting brought together Sikhs from across te County to express concern over the incidents.

At this second meeting Mr. Singh expressed the community’s concerns over the actions by certain Harris County Sheriff Deputies and further discussed the need for concrete and proactive solutions to the threat of racial profiling and police brutality in Harris County. Among the suggestions he offered, Mr. Singh reiterated the need for mandated training of all Harris County Sheriff deputies on Sikhism and Sikh traditions.

“These meetings are part of SALDEF’s continued efforts to provide long-term and meaningful engagement with government officials in cities across the nation,” said Mr. Singh. “Both the community and government must take concrete steps to understand one another and make sure that incidents like this do not happen again. These meetings are just the beginning of a long-term partnership that SALDEF and the Sikh American community will have with the local officials to ensure open communication and to prevent misunderstandings in the future.”

Through SALDEF’s Law Enforcement Partnership Program, SALDEF previously provided law enforcement training to the City of Houston police department. In the new year, SALDEF plans to work with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office to provide a year-long training program to educate the entire force about Sikhs and Sikh Americans.

Earlier this month, in the course of investigating the burglary of a Sikh American home, Harris County police officials made suggestive remarks to the family about Muslims, terrorism and the Mumbai terrorist attacks. When one the officers noticed a family member wearing a kirpan, they pointed a taser gun at her head, and handcuffed multiple family members, including a sixty-year-old grandmother. The only reason for this action was the Sikh family practicing their faith freely in their home.


Sheriff-elect reaches out to Harris County Sikhs

He promises diversity training and investigation into allegations of misconduct by deputies responding to a burglary at a family's home
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Dec. 14, 2008, 10:48PM

Eric Kayne Chronicle
Sheriff-elect Adrian Garcia gets help adjusting a head covering he wore while addressing Sikh followers at the Sikh Center of Houston on Sunday.

Harris County Sheriff-elect Adrian Garcia took off his shoes and put on a head covering to enter a Sikh temple Sunday, where he pledged to expand diversity training and investigate a complaint that deputies harassed a Sikh family whose home was burglarized last month.

"It's unfortunate that we're getting to know each other under these circumstances," said Garcia, addressing several hundred men in colorful turbans and women draped in bright flowing scarves, who sat separately on the floor of the Sikh Center of Houston. "When these type of circumstances occur, we all lose. The image of what should be American authority suffers."

He said he could not address specifics of the case until after he assumes office in January. Officials have said that the deputies could face anything from disciplinary action to termination.

Ramandeep Singh, 28, an architect technician, called 911 on Nov. 26 when he discovered that his home in the 10800 block of Oak Bayou Lane had been burglarized. Jewelry and money was missing.

Rather than investigate the burglary, a deputy focused on his turban and the small ceremonial knife, called a "kirpan," his sister had sheathed on her hip, he said.

After spotting the knife, a deputy pointed a taser at the woman's head and called for backup. Deputies handcuffed four family members, including Singh's mother.

A supervisor arrived at the home and released everyone, blaming the incident on the deputy's "youth," Singh said.

His sister, Kawaljeet Kaur, remains distraught. "Why were we detained and put through this humiliating experience and shown such disrespect? We were treated as criminals when we had just been victimized," she said Sunday.

The New York-based Sikh Coalition has called for a formal apology and firing of the four deputies involved. The deputies' names have not been released, and Sheriff Tommy Thomas has declined comment.

Bobby Singh, regional director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Harris County deputies would benefit from training about the Sikh religion that he has helped provide for Houston police recruits for the past eight years.

A monotheistic religion, the Sikh religion emerged about 500 years ago in Punjab, a state in India, by gurus who have sometimes been persecuted by some Muslims, church members said. With about 25 million followers, the religion preaches messages of honesty, equality and charity.

Bobby Singh said he hopes sheriff-elect Garcia keeps his promise to change the culture of the Harris Country Sheriff's Office.

Garcia said the incident may be the result of "misunderstandings" caused by the fact that sheriff's deputies do not have the training about the Sikh faith that Houston police do.

He hopes to change that by expanding diversity training, creating an advisory committee composed of all the county's diverse groups, recruiting Sikh police trainees, and arranging for Sikh families to host Houston police supervisors for dinner.

He estimated that it would take one to three months to complete the investigation.

Garcia, Sikhs to meet

Sheriff-elect to listen about alleged abuse by deputies
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Dec. 12, 2008, 11:23PM

Sheriff-elect Adrian Garcia will meet with members of the local Sikh community on Sunday to listen to their concerns about allegations that Harris County deputies harassed a Sikh family last month.

"I will be offering just a good ear," said Garcia, who will take office in January. "I think that this is one of those roles that an elected official serves. We've got to always be ready to listen to any segment of the community when there's concern and understand it."

Sheriff Tommy Thomas has yet to comment publicly or respond to a letter sent last week by the Sikh Coalition, based in New York, that called for his office to fire the four deputies involved and issue a formal apology to the family. "He feels it would be inappropriate, even for media purposes, to presumptively make comments regarding an ongoing investigation of sheriff's office personnel," said Sheriff's Office spokesman John Legg.

Members of the Sikh family have said they called 911 when their home in the 10800 block of Oak Bayou Lane was burglarized the night of Nov. 26. But instead of investigating the break-in, they said, the responding deputy became alarmed when he noticed one of the women wore a ceremonial knife sheathed on her hip.

Symbol of faith
Kawaljeet Kaur, 35, said she explained to the deputy that she wears the small, blunt Kirpan as a symbol of her faith and offered to leave the room. The deputy aimed his Taser at her and called for backup, she said.

Matters got worse when other deputies arrived and began cursing and handcuffing family members, including Kaur and her 60-year-old mother, relatives said.

One deputy reportedly asked if the family had "heard about the bombings in Bombay." Another allegedly said he had been to Kuwait and "knew about Muslims."

Legg said the investigation into the deputies' actions remains "a top priority" for the sheriff's office.

"We're very disturbed by the allegations and if proven to be true there would be consequences," he said.

He declined to release the names of the deputies or any official records of the incident pending the probe's outcome.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, misperceptions about Sikhs' religiously mandated turbans and beards have led to an increase in discrimination and hate crimes.

But the cultural diversity training required for sheriff's deputies every few years does not include information about the Sikh religion, a monotheistic faith with more than 25 million followers worldwide.

That could now change, said Legg, the sheriff's spokesman.

"That's certainly a point of interest for us now in expanding our training to include other religions perhaps that we may have overlooked and that may have grown in population in our area," he said.

'Working together'
Earlier this week, the head of the Sheriff's Internal Affairs Division, Lt. Dennis Field, met with the family members "and had an open dialogue," Legg said.

"It went very well and there was excellent progress made," he said. "They were working together."

Kaur confirmed that her family had met with IAD officials and made arrangements to give formal statements to investigators. She and her relatives plan to attend the meeting with Garcia at the Sikh Center in west Houston on Sunday.

The invitation for Garcia to visit the center came from longtime friend Bobby Singh, regional director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Singh said the family's story shocked the Sikh community, locally and nationally.

"I think people are outraged," he said. "I think everyone in the community feels that we are law-abiding citizens."

Sikhs aren't asking for preferential treatment, Singh said, "but I think that if this is what equates to serving and protecting, not only the Sikh community but the Harris County community at large should be very concerned. This is not what we deserve."

Garcia felt it was important to take a proactive step.

"We need to make sure that our folks have the right training to understand the diverse community that Harris County is, and I think it starts with leadership and that's why I'm making myself available," he said. "But overall this is an opportunity to learn and obviously to do better than we have done in the past."

Sikh family accuses deputies of abuse, taunts

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Dec. 5, 2008, 10:44PM

Kawaljeet Kaur, with her brother, Ramandeep Singh, shows her Kirpan, a ceremonial dagger required by the Sikh faith. Deputies handcuffed family members after they reported a burglary at their home.

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion with more than 25 million followers worldwide.
Sikhism was revealed to Guru Nanak more than 500 years ago in the Punjab, the Sikh homeland in South Asia. The word "guru" means an enlightener and a prophet.

The religion denounces superstitions and blind ritual, preaching a message of devotion, remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality between all human beings and social justice.

Initiated Sikhs wear the Kesh (uncut hair), which is kept covered by a distinctive turban, the Kirpan (religious sword), Kara (metal bracelet), Kanga (comb) and Kaccha (under-shorts). This uniform is intended to unify and bind them to their beliefs and to remind them of their commitment to the Gurus at all times.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office is investigating allegations that deputies harassed a family of Sikhs whose home was burglarized last week.

Family members say the deputies handcuffed them, roughed them up and taunted them instead of taking a report on the break-in.

One deputy reportedly asked them if they'd "heard about the bombings in Bombay." Another allegedly said he had been to Kuwait and "knew about Muslims."

Since 9/11, misperceptions about Sikhs' religiously mandated turbans and beards have led to an increase in discrimination against Sikhs, according to the New York-based Sikh Coalition.

The family reported the incident to the Coalition, which called for the sheriff's office to fire the four deputies involved and issue a formal apology to the family.

"The allegations, if they're true, are certainly intolerable and inconsistent with our policies," said sheriff's spokesman John Legg.

The deputies could face anything from disciplinary action to termination, Legg said. He declined to release their names pending further investigation.

The Sikh family returned home to the 10800 block of Oak Bayou Lane on the night of Nov. 26 to discover a broken window in a bathroom and belongings strewn on the floor of the master bedroom. Jewelry and money was missing.

Ramandeep Singh, 28, called 911 and went to the driveway to greet the deputy when his patrol car pulled up.

"Right from that instant, he didn't ask us what was going on or if we were OK, he just looked at me and he goes, 'Do you have an ID?'" recalled Singh, who has a beard and wears a turban.

Singh offered to retrieve his ID from the house and invited the officer to accompany him.

After handing over the ID, Singh and his relatives showed the deputy the broken window. But the deputy couldn't seem to focus on the break-in, Singh said.

"It just looked like he didn't want to be there," he said. "I sensed a little uneasiness from him."

Deputy 'freaked out'
Then the deputy noticed his sister's Kirpan, a small ceremonial knife she wears sheathed on her hip.

The Kirpan is a religious article mandated by the Sikh faith, explained Kawaljeet Kaur, 35. "It's a constant reminder to me that I need to promote justice for all," she said.

The deputy "freaked out," Singh said.

"Before you know it, he has a taser pointed at her forehead, he's calling for backup, he's raising his voice, like, 'Shut up, shut up! '"

"I told him, you know, I'm a law-abiding citizen," Kaur said. "Treat me with respect."

She offered to leave the room if the Kirpan upset him, but pointed out that it was her constitutional right to practice her religion in her own home.

"He said, 'I don't care about that,' " Singh remembered.

He said the situation deteriorated when other deputies arrived and began handcuffing family members, including Kaur's 60-year-old mother.

"They were using the f-word, and we had an 8-year-old in the house," Singh said.

One deputy pushed Kaur to the ground and pressed his knee to her back.

"They basically didn't treat us like humans," she said. "They didn't think they had to give us any answers or talk to us."

One of the deputies told the family he "knew about Muslims," they said.

"But even if I was a Muslim, that doesn't mean I'm a terrorist," Kaur pointed out.

Helpless, in shock
"It was a terrifying experience," she said. "When a hate crime is committed at your own home, you feel so helpless and so vulnerable as to who do you call for help. I will probably think a hundred times before calling 911 ever again."

Although more than a dozen deputies had swarmed the scene, none of them made any effort investigate the burglary, Singh said.

"Imagine the kind of resources that they're putting into this kind of thing instead of all the real crime that's going on out there," he said. "I mean I was just in shock. I didn't think this kind of thing could happen in Houston."

Hours after the initial 911 call, a supervisor showed up and ordered the deputies to unhandcuff the family, Singh said.

"He was like, 'Yeah, these guys are young. They don't know any better,' " Singh said. "I'm like, 'That's fine but that's no excuse to treat anybody this way.'"

Singh said his family moved to Houston from India more than 20 years ago and consider themselves proud citizens.

Racial profiling people won't make anybody safer and will erode trust in law enforcement, especially in immigrant communities, said Neha Singh, western region director for the Sikh Coalition.

"For an incident like this to occur is shameful and shocking," she said. "I really don't understand how they could justify what they did here, and I'm sure they would not have behaved the same way had the family looked different."





Sheriff Elect's Response to Police Brutality Against Sikh Family


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