WASHINGTON — Washington’s police chief on Wednesday gave the green light for turbaned Sikhs to serve as officers, making the capital the first major US city to accommodate the religion’s articles of faith.
The police department said that 4,000 officers have gone through cultural training to sensitize them to the Sikh faith and that the first Sikh American keeping his turban and beard was expected to join the force in August.
“It is difficult enough to find highly qualified police officers. There are very rigid standards,” Cathy Lanier, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, told a news conference.
“Then to think about something as simple as appearance or a grooming standard that would prevent somebody who is talented enough to meet all that other criteria, it really just doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Sikh men are required by faith to wear a turban and beard and carry a ceremonial sword. The requirements have often conflicted with codes in Western countries that call for men to be clean-shaven or wear assigned headgear.
Since 2010, the US military has made exceptions to allow observant Sikhs to serve. Turbaned Sikhs already serve as police officers in several other countries including Britain, Canada and India, where the religion was founded.
But New York City, which has a large Sikh community, maintains a prohibition on turbans. In 2003, a Sikh traffic officer filed a discrimination lawsuit but the police department reverted to its former rules after he left the force.
Los Angeles County has allowed Sikh Americans to serve with turbans but only in the sheriff department reserves, not on active duty, according to activists.
The US Sikh community, estimated by activists at around 700,000 strong, has endured harassment and sporadic violence since the September 11, 2001 attacks as assailants mistakenly associate their turbans with Islamic extremism.
Jasjit Singh of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which partnered with Washington’s police department, hailed the US capital for “affirming that religion is no bar in public service.”
“We hope that other police departments around the country will follow their pioneering leadership,” Singh told the news conference.
“It was over 100 years ago that Sikh Americans came to this country. Today we join our counterparts across the world in being able to protect our communities — and proudly wear our turbans and beards while doing so.”
Washington is considering holding job fairs to recruit more Sikh officers, said Patrick Burke, the assistant police chief.
“When officers can garner the respect and trust of the community by mirroring that community, then people are truly respectful and trusting of the police and are sharing information, which helps us to close cases,” he said.
Washington’s police department was at the forefront in 2000 when it set up a special liaison unit to work with the gay community.
Lanier, one of a growing number of women to head police departments, said that the prohibition on Sikh articles of faith reminded her of her own experience as female officers formerly were not allowed to ride in patrol cars with their male counterparts.
“I wouldn’t be standing here today if there weren’t policy changes years ago as a police officer, much less as the police chief,” she said.