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NRI sikhs in Califonia introduce Punjabi culture to local Police

Police Learn Punjabi Culture in Seminar

LIVINGSTON, January 19, 2006
Leslie Albrecht

People think cops live on doughnuts, but Livingston police busted that stereotype Tuesday afternoon when they chowed down on samosas, pakoras and other Indian food at the Sikh temple on B Street.
The occasion was a four-hour training session on Punjabi culture -- a first for Merced County law enforcement.

Gurujodha Singh Khalsa, a Bakersfield attorney and converted Sikh, gave officers an A to Z lesson covering everything from the different turbans Sikh men wear to the role of law enforcement in India.

"It was great," said Officer Pedro Magana. "It gives us a whole different perspective on the culture and how they do things."

About 13 percent of Livingston's residents trace their roots to India's Punjab state. Most Punjabis are followers of the Sikh religion.

Chief Bill Eldridge arranged the workshop in response to complaints from Sikhs who say police don't treat them with respect.

Officers learned the basics of Sikh beliefs and etiquette like how to ask Sikh men to remove their turbans and kirpans, the small knives that some Sikhs carry.

The most important lesson was to treat Sikhs, especially men, with great respect, said Magana.

"If you ever have to go into a home, treat the man with respect," said Magana. "Don't demean him in front of his family. If you do something like that, you'll close the door and the lines of communication."

Khalsa told officers that when they enter a Sikh family's home, it's important to take the time to greet the male and explain to him exactly what is happening.

Reserve Officer Tarlochan Sohal, the only Sikh officer on Livingston's force, found the speaker who led the workshop.

Sohal, who was a cop in India before he moved to Livingston 20 years ago, said that Indian attitudes toward law enforcement can make communication a challenge.

"I belong to their culture, but sometimes they hesitate to talk to me because they think of how the police are back home," said Sohal.

Gurpal Samra, a Sikh and former mayor of Livingston, attended the workshop and said he even learned a few things himself.

Samra said he's been in the U.S. so long he forgets sometimes what's offensive. For example, shaking a Sikh woman's hand is a no-no.

Samra said the presenter did an excellent job of showing how little gestures like saying "hello" in Punjabi can communicate respect.

"If you walk up to someone and say 'satsriakhal' that means you're acknowledging them as a person," said Samra. "If you make that initial attempt, it goes a long way."

Khalsa stressed that the Sikh community is particularly close-knit, and that word travels fast about how officers treat members of the community.

He joked to the audience, "If you want something to get around, you telephone or you tell a Sikh."

Eldridge said he's hopeful that the entire Sikh community will hear that the police are making an effort to learn more about their culture.

The department will continue its diversity training next month with a session on Hispanic culture.

"These are great learning lessons," said Eldridge. "I just hope they take hold and are carried onto the street."



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