City Desk

Why MPD Changed Its Rules on Turbans

Last week, we noted that Sikh-Americans can now become Metropolitan Police Department officers without having to take off their turbans.

It’s a big win for the Sikh advocacy group that helped get the new policy off the ground—even though there’s currently only one Sikh-American MPD trainee, and no active Sikh officers—because it makes D.C. the first major city to accept Sikhs who wear traditional turbans onto the police force without having to change their attire.

We spoke with Jasjit Singh, the executive director of the Sikh-American Legal Defense and Education Fund—the nonprofit that advocated for the policy change and stood with MPD Chief Cathy Lanier when she announced it.

“It was really a sign that this police department was progressive, willing to work with us, and that provided us with fertile ground to engage with this conversation,” says Singh.

Singh credits the existing positive relationship between SALDEF and MPD, which allowed SALDEF to conduct hour-long training programs about the faith for officers. This was important, Singh says, especially since Sept. 11, after which Sikh-Americans were harassed as foreigners and would-be terrorists (mostly by people who incorrectly assumed a) they were Muslims and b) all Muslims were would-be terrorists).

As for Lanier, Singh commends her as someone who understands the issues that affect Sikh-Americans.

“Chief Lanier is a woman. She said, actually in her remarks, that 40 years ago a woman wouldn’t be in a patrol car as an officer. So she understands the idea of those glass ceilings,” Singh says.

Lanier—although very popular among DC residents—has faced criticism for her handling of minority issues, especially from activists in the LGBT community who’ve expressed concern about police response to possible hate crimes. But for SALDEF, Lanier has been an important player and most of all, an ally.

SALDEF is the oldest Sikh advocacy group in the United States. The organization, which was initially a media watch dog searching for negative portrayals of Sikhs, soon incorporated complaints from the local Sikh-American communities, which included racial profiling and school bullying.

“[Our] group was started because our ideology was confused, our identify was confused,” says Singh. “Oftentimes we were portrayed in a way that wasn’t fair, and so that’s how we started. In 2004, we changed our name to the Sikh-American Legal Defense and Education Fund to better reflect the expanding scope of the work we were doing.”

Singh is looking forward to how Americans who are not Sikh will view Sikh-Americans on patrol who are protecting them.

“We couldn’t have done this without the open-mindedness and the leadership of Chief Lanier and I think all D.C. residents should be proud of that fact,” Singh adds, “And if they see a Sikh-American officer protecting and serving their community, I hope that they will recognize that as a step forward for all of us, for civil rights, for Sikhs of course, and for law enforcement in general.”

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