Sikhs family harassed by Harris County deputies

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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. Photo: Melissa Phillip Chronicle

On Wednesday night November 26, 2008, the night before Thanksgiving, a Sikh Family called the Harris County Sheriff's office (Houstan, Texas) to report a burglary at their house, but to their astonishment, rather than being treated with respect, as victims of a crime, the first deputy on the scene called for help and treated them as if they were the criminals.

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."

The Deputy 'freaked out'

Then the deputy noticed his sister's Kirpan, a small ceremonial knife she wears sheathed on her hip, which is a religious article mandated by the Sikh faith. Kawaljeet Kaur, explained, "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."

Follow up

The Sikh Coalition strongly condemns misbehavior by Harris County police officers towards a Sikh family whose home was burglarized in Houston last week. The officers' behavior sent a loud message to Sikhs and Muslims that they are second class citizens.

At the beginning of the Thanksgiving weekend, the Tagore family came home to find a window broken and their master bedroom ransacked. When they called 911 to report the crime, Harris County police officers were dispatched to investigate. But instead of pursuing the thieves, the police officers began grilling a family member. Officers ordered Ms. Kawaljeet Kaur to hand over her kirpan -- a religious article mandated by the Sikh faith -- which she wore over her shoulder. Ms. Kaur offered to leave the room if her kirpan made the officers uncomfortable, but to no avail.

Instead, she, along with her brother, mother and cousin, were handcuffed and led into the street. Officers verbally abused them as they were searched. An officer applied pressure to Ms. Kaur's back as she sat on the ground. One officer asked the family whether they had "heard about the bombings in Bombay" while another told them that he "knew about Muslims."

Hours later, the entire family was released without being arrested or charged.

"How can the police stop us from practicing our religion in our own home?" asked Ms. Kaur. "We called the police to help us. Instead, they humiliated and harassed us. They handcuffed my 60-year-old mother in front of my 8-year-old niece. They think they can get away with it because we look different."

"What happened at the Tagore home was shameful," said Amardeep Singh, Executive Director of the Sikh Coalition. "Through a combination of violence, racial prejudice and intimidation, the Harris County police turned innocent victims into perpetrators."

The Sikh Coalition calls upon Harris County to terminate four police officers involved in the incident and issue a formal apology to the family.

Sikhism is the fifth largest religion worldwide. Since 9/11, misperceptions about Sikhs' religiously mandated turbans and beards have led to hate attacks and discrimination against Sikhs across the country. The Sikh Coalition is a national civil rights organization dedicated to defending Sikhs' civil rights.

  • SOURCE Sikh Coalition Contact: Neha Singh, +1-510-659-0900, ext. 90 or Kawaljeet Kaur, +1-832-830-3944, both of the Sikh Coalition

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Stills from the video