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New York Police Department (NYDP)’s outdated policy perpetuates anti-Sikh stereotypes

September 3, 2014 | By

For the second time in a month, a Sikh-American was physically assaulted in a reported hate crime in New York City.

On July 30, a man in a pickup truck directed hate speech at 29-year-old Sandeep Singh before running him over and dragging his body with his vehicle. On Aug. 7, Jaspreet Singh Batra, a medical scientist who was walking with his mother, was attacked by a group of teenagers who shouted racial slurs while punching him in the face and the back of his neck.

Batra’s case bears a striking resemblance to last year’s incident involving Prabhjot Singh, a physician and professor at Columbia University who was chased down by a group of teens shouting “Get Osama!” and “Terrorist!” The attackers fractured Singh’s jaw and dislodged several of his teeth before dispersing.

[File Photo]

[File Photo]

Sikh Americans, easily identifiable by their uncut hair, turbans and beards, have been disproportionately targeted in hate violence since the 9/11 attacks. Nationwide, there have been more than 700 attacks and discrimination incidents against Sikhs since 9/11, according to the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the United States. This includes a brutal attack two years ago on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which took the lives of six worshippers.

Despite the national outrage after Oak Creek, Sikhs continue to be targeted in hate crimes. A 2009 report by the Sikh Coalition found that 41 percent of Sikhs in New York City have been called names such as “Osama bin Laden” or “terrorist” and that 9 percent of Sikh adults have been physically assaulted because of their religious identity. (By way of comparison, in 2012, when the national population just topped 300 million, the Federal Bureau of Investigation documented 6,000 hate crimes in the United States — a a rate of 0.002 percent.)

Police departments are too often part of the problem. For instance, the New York Police Department maintains a policy that effectively bars observant Sikhs — who follow the religious mandates of keeping a turban and uncut hair — from serving on its force. They may only serve if they hide their turbans under police hats, which Sikh traditions prohibit.

Of the 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States, tens of thousands call New York City home. The NYPD’s unwillingness to accommodate an important part of its community gives New Yorkers a green light to do the same — and perpetuates the very stereotypes that lead to hate crimes.

Limited victory

In 2001 the NYPD traffic control division fired Amric Singh Rathour for refusing to abandon his turban and uncut beard. His letter of termination cited a provision of the NYPD dress code that requires all traffic enforcement agents to wear a police cap and maintain a beard no longer than one millimeter. While the NYPD maintains this dress policy to ensure uniformity, it fails to consider that the particular appearance it mandates is exclusionary and outdated and has no bearing on an officer’s ability to do his or her job.

The Sikh Coalition took on Rathour’s case, arguing that Sikhs must receive an equal opportunity to serve in the nation’s largest police force. The two sides reached a settlement after two and a half years of litigation. Rathour received his job back, and a policy change now guarantees the right for every Sikh American to serve as a traffic enforcement agent with the NYPD. While Rathour’s victory is significant, the policy change remains limited to the traffic control division; the rest of the department still effectively bars observant Sikhs from joining its ranks.

In a letter this month (PDF) to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton that addresses the recent spate of hate crimes, Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., urged action to keep Sikh Americans safer. One way to do so would be for the NYPD to reconsider its no-turban policy, Crowley said. And it’s true: It would send a message that law enforcement is committed to fully embracing the communities it aims to serve and protect.

Setting an example

As issues of dress code and religious freedom have increasingly come under judicial scrutiny, discriminatory policies have failed to stand up. Over the past several years, law enforcement agencies across the country, including the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., and the Milpitas Police Department in California, have voluntarily adopted provisions to allow Sikh Americans to serve without discrimination. Such provisions are also in place in other sizable police forces around the world, including Toronto’s and London’s.

The NYPD certainly has the capacity to modernize its dress code in the name of religious diversity. In June 2012 it fired Fishel Litzman, a Hasidic police cadet, over the length of his beard. He filed a religious discrimination lawsuit, and Federal District Judge Harold Baer upheld his civil rights by ruling in his favor. The NYPD reinstated him with his religious freedom and his beard intact.

Rathour and Litzman challenged the NYPD’s discriminatory policy and successfully won the right to serve in the force without renouncing their religious identities. These victories pave the way for a formal policy change that guarantees religious liberty for Americans of diverse religious backgrounds who wish to serve in the NYPD.

As our nation continues to modernize, our public institutions ought to follow suit. It is time for police forces across the United States — including the NYPD — to follow the examples other departments have set by abandoning their outdated and discriminatory policies. Until our law enforcement agencies fully embrace the populations they serve, they will remain complicit in perpetuating the same negative stereotypes that lead to hate crimes.

* Author, Simran Jeet Singh, is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of religion at Columbia University. He serves as the senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition and as a fellow for the Truman National Security Project.

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