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Houston's first Sikh deputy constable sworn in

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St. John Barned-Smith
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Amrit Singh always knew he wanted to work as a peace officer. He spent years in law enforcement explorer programs, five months in a police training academy, and many dozens of hours working out and studying.

After all that work, the 21-year-old Sugar Land resident’s swearing in as one of the newest members of the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office took less than a minute.

The move made him the first Sikh deputy constable in Harris County and represented an important step forward in religious inclusion, local Sikhs said.

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that originated in what is now India. Practicing Sikhs wear a turban and five articles of faith: uncut hair, a wooden comb, an iron bracelet, an iron dagger and a Kachera, or type of undergarment — requirements that would be prohibited by many law enforcement departments that operate as paramilitary organizations with strict uniform policies.

Harris County made national headlines in 2015 after sheriff’s deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal fought for and won the rights to wear his turban and beard on duty. At the time of the beloved deputy’s murder last year, just a few dozen law enforcement agencies across the United States — and the U.S. Army — had uniform policies with religious accommodations allowing Sikhs to serve in accordance with their faith.

Dhaliwal’s death left the region reeling — but galvanized the Houston Police Department in October to make similar accommodations in its policies.

On Tuesday, Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen announced at Singh’s swearing-in ceremony that the county’s eight constables supported accommodations for Sikhs to serve while adhering to their religion.

“As a man of the Jewish faith, I know how it feels to be religiously targeted and how important it is to teach inclusion, understanding and tolerance,” Rosen said, standing in front of representatives from the county’s other constable offices. “To me, wearing a yarmulke or him wearing a turban really doesn’t impact the quality of work of what he’s going to do. It should have zero impact on public safety or what job we do. Are you going to care if the person showing up to your door to help save you has a turban or yarmulke? You’re not. You're just happy they’re there to save you and keep you safe.”

Singh said he’d wanted to serve in law enforcement ever since he was a child — he always felt a need to protect people around him. But he wanted to find a department that would respect his faith, he said.

“I didn’t want to give up my religion to serve,” Singh said. “And I knew if I was that passionate about it, there would be some leader out there who would feel the same way.”

In a brief interview, Singh’s parents said they supported their son even though the job could be dangerous.

“I have no doubt he will be a very good law enforcement officer,” said his father, Suhel Singh.

Singh’s mother, Sukie Kaur, said she hoped her son would excel in his new profession.

“I want him to do [his job] to the best of his ability, she said.

Leaders from the Sikh community said Singh’s hiring marked the latest step in a series of events that have made Houston a beacon for Sikhs and for religious tolerance.

“You can’t have diversity without inclusiveness,” said Bobby Singh, a Houston businessman and Sikh community leader. “This is what we’re about in this region.”

In the months since Dhaliwal’s death, law enforcement agencies in California, Washington and others in Texas have signaled willingness to change their policies, said Manpreet Singh of the Sikh Coalition, which advocates for religious accommodations for minority communities in public and private sectors.

“It makes me proud to be a Houstonian, and a Texan,” she said. “I hope the rest of the nation follows Texas.”