Bucking a disturbing trend of bias against ethnic minorities in some parts of the U.S., the nation's capital made history this week when its police department announced a decision to explicitly and voluntarily allow Sikh-Americans to serve as full-time, uniformed officers while keeping their articles of faith.

At an event at police headquarters on Thursday, Chief Cathy Lanier of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) said, “I am proud of this new policy which reflects the values of the MPD. Making it clear that Sikh-Americans may protect the nation's capital and may serve their community as full-time officers, reflects the promise we made to have a police force that serves as a model for those around the world.”

The District of Columbia has partnered with the Sikh-American Legal Defence and Education Fund (SALDEF) in developing the new scheme, under which official policy endorses the use of turbans of the same colour as the overall uniform and a department badge pinned to the front of the turban instead of the police hat as customary.

Emphasising the police department's desire to project to the broader community the MPD's values, Ms. Lanier was quoted saying that it was the decision to accommodate the articles of faith of Sikh-American officers was “common-sense,” because it was hard to find qualified police officers and it was practical to accommodate candidates who would otherwise be fit for the job.

Reports suggested that male Sikh-American officers would be allowed to wear “beards that are neatly kept,” and that the decision to permit this was anticipatory in the sense that it was motivated in part by the case of a Sikh graduating from the police academy this August who had requested the accommodation.

SALDEF Executive Director Jasjit Singh said at the MPD briefing, “Nine years ago, Sikh-Americans [in New York City] had to sue to become traffic enforcement officers. Today, the Nation's Capital is inviting all Sikh Americans to become full-time, full-fledged police officers.” He urged the community to consider the “first-of-a-kind guidance by one of the nation's premier law enforcement agencies” as a model for other agencies across the nation.

The Sikh community in the U.S. has enjoyed some success in the effort to bring about greater tolerance towards the community. In early 2010, 31-year-old Tejdeep Singh Rattan graduated into the army from at San Antonio, Texas, becoming the first Sikh in a generation who had continued wearing a traditional turban and yet joined the U.S. military.

At the time Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition, a community-based organisation, told The Hindu that in 1981, the U.S. Army had banned “conspicuous” religious articles of faith for its service members, including Sikh turbans and unshorn hair.

The community has often struggled to get broader institutional reforms for equality passed into policy. In March this year, a 92-member contingent of Democratic Congressmen wrote to U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller urging law enforcement agencies to collect data on hate crimes against the Sikh community. The Congressional group noted that because of their “distinct identity and common misperceptions with respect to their attire and appearance”, attackers often appeared to erroneously believe that Sikh-Americans were affiliated with extremists and were somehow responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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