Sikh relations: What police officers should know

The Sikh community is the fifth-largest religion in the world, with 25 million Sikhs worldwide and half a million in the United States

Last week on PoliceOne, we saw an amazing interview with Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy, who you will recall was shot a dozen times by an assailant who had attacked the local Sikh temple. In that interview Lt. Murphy was clearly grateful for the kindness and support he’d received from the Sikhs in that Wisconsin community. 

It just so happens that I recently had an opportunity to sit in on a cultural awareness training session with some Sikh community leaders and Arab American activists with a goal to enlighten the attendees with knowledge of their culture, customs, and traditions.

I have to admit, as I first sat down in the class, I felt I had a lot of experience and knowledge of these cultures since our city has such a large population of them. I worked most of my career working a patrol sector with a heavy concentration of Arab and Sikh Americans (the 2000 census stated “among places with 100,000 or more population, the highest proportion of Arabs lived in Sterling Heights, Mich.”)1.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
My ignorance got the best of me that day. After 23 years policing in this city — and many Arab and Sikh friendships forged — I thought I knew all I needed to know when dealing with these ancient cultures.

That was not the case, and I gained a valuable insight into the Sikh culture. The following information was provided by these Sikh leaders and cultural awareness trainers from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Sikh community is the fifth-largest religion in the world, with 25 million Sikhs worldwide and half a million in the United States. 

The Sikh religion is unrelated to Hinduism and Islam.

The first Sikhs arrived in America in the 1890s and many even served in the first two world wars.

Sikh community leaders want to educate Americans in hopes of stopping the stereotyping that exists in this country against some Sikh Americans.

A couple of points that they shared with us during our “cultural awareness training” was that the Sikhs origin is from Northern India and not the Middle East, and a vast majority of bearded men wearing turbans in the U.S. are Sikh and not Muslim or Arab.

The Five Articles of Faith
When dealing with Sikhs, it will serve you well to understand that they are very religious and greatly value their “five articles of faith.” Being prepared with this knowledge may help you obtain information from them during encounters.

The five articles of faith are:

1.) Kara: A steel bracelet, worn around the wrist, signifies “strength and unity with God.” When practical, avoid removing since most have been worn for many years without ever being removed.

2.) Kangha: A wooden comb for the hair, represents “cleanliness and discipline”

3.) Kachera: Undershorts, represents “self restraint and high moral character.”

4.) Kirpan: Religious sword, signifies “commitment to truth and justice.” Worn in a sash over the shoulder and to the side of the waist. Kirpans are commonly three to six inches in length and dull. They are viewed by the Sikhs as a religious symbol and not necessarily a knife.

However, Sikh men in the class I attended advised that some will keep their Kirpan sharpe. Therefore, I advise that you treat any Sikh with a Kirpan with the same caution as you would any person with a knife.

The Sikh men reassured me that they understand a policeman’s concern with the Kirpan and they anticipate that officers will confiscate them during any interactions and encounters they have with police.

Be mindful that the Kirpan is a religious symbol and handling with care might help you achieve your goals with the Sikh as you gain their respect. Many states and cities have laws and ordinances specific to Kirpans, so please educate yourself.

5.) Kesh: Uncut hair and beard of Sikh men, represents “honor and dignity.” Sikhs will grow their hair long and tie the hair into a knot daily and cover the knot with a turban. The turban is typically 18’ to 24’ in length and can take up to 20 minutes to wrap around the head.

The turban is an obvious place to conceal items from a cop’s perspective. During casual encounters with Sikhs, if you wish to search the turban, and when practical, avoid removing it in public as they view this as humiliation. Ask the Sikh to remove it himself as it doesn’t come off the head like a ball cap would.

When searching a turban, laying it on a cloth — again, when practical — will help to ensure a greater relationship between you and the Sikh subject you’re dealing with.

Keep in mind that I am only providing you with a small amount (albeit a valuable amount) of information regarding the Sikh community.

Some of their customs — and any suggestions I make — will not apply in all encounters you may have with them. Obviously, my suggestions are speaking of casual encounters you may have with Sikhs. I am not suggesting that criminals receive preferential treatment of any kind.

If your encounter with a Sikh is on a high priority run, then handle your run as any other high priority run — with officer safety being the priority.

Stay safe,
Sgt. French

1 Census 2000 showed 245 places in the United States with 100,000 or more population. They included 238 incorporated places (including 4 city-county consolidations) and 7 census designated places that were not legally incorporated. For a list of these places by state, see

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