ACLU Calls On Providence Police To Dismiss Case Against Sikh Arrested At Train Station

October 16, 2001 12:00 am


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PROVIDENCE, RI – – In a letter sent today to Providence Police Chief Richard Sullivan, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has called on the police department to drop the criminal charge filed against a traveling Sikh man for carrying a ceremonial dagger the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Sher J.B. Singh was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, based on a search that was conducted after he was detained at the Providence train station. The “weapon,” a Kirpan, is a blunt ceremonial knife worn by devout Sikhs as an integral part of their religious beliefs.

In the letter to Chief Sullivan, the ACLU wrote that the criminal charge against Mr. Singh “sends a very troubling message to people in the Providence community.” The ACLU also noted that the tip leading to the detention of Singh and three other passengers was almost certainly prompted by “classic racial profiling – somebody deemed these passengers dangerous solely because of their appearance.”

“Even if one could forgive this overreaction in light of its proximity in time to the horrible events of the preceding day, it certainly does not justify the city’s pursuit of questionable criminal charges over a month later,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.

The ACLU also alleges in the letter that the use of the state’s “concealed weapon” statute is a potential violation of Mr. Singh’s right to religious freedom. Furthermore, the ACLU asserts that the statute as it is being used now will have the effect of essentially banishing devout Sikhs from the state if they wish to practice a basic tenet of their religion.

The letter sent to Providence Police Chief Richard Sullivan:

October 16, 2001

Richard Sullivan
Chief of Police
Providence Police Department
LaSalle Square
Providence, RI 02903

Dear Chief Sullivan:

I am writing to express our organization’s deep concern about the City’s apparent decision to continue to pursue criminal charges against Sher J.B. Singh for carrying a concealed weapon, based on a search that was conducted after he was detained at the Providence train station on September 12th in the panic following the September 11th attacks. As you know, the weapon was a Kirpan, a blunt ceremonial knife worn by devout Sikhs as an integral part of their religious beliefs. We believe that the pursuit of this prosecution sends a very troubling message to people in the Providence community.

While we recognize that police may have been acting on a tip when it boarded the Amtrak train and interrogated Mr. Singh and three other passengers, there can be little question that the tip itself was prompted by classic racial profiling, and that somebody deemed these passengers dangerous solely because of their appearance. (This is somewhat ironic, since Mr. Singh is neither Muslim nor Arab. It thus presents a perfect example of the dangers and ineffectiveness of racial profiling,.) Even if one could forgive this overreaction in light of its proximity in time to the horrible events of the preceding day, it certainly does not justify the City’s pursuit of questionable criminal charges over a month later.

Of course, this is not the place to debate in depth the merits of the underlying criminal charge against Mr. Singh. Suffice it to say that there appear to be legitimate grounds to challenge the validity of the search of Mr. Singh. Similarly, there would appear to be strong grounds for questioning, as a violation of Mr. Singh’s rights to religious freedom, the use of the “concealed weapon” statute in this case. Indeed, the logical effect of the City’s position is to essentially banish devout Sikhs from the state if they wish to practice a basic tenet of their religion.

Even if the legal grounds for dismissing the charge weren’t strong — and, as noted above, we submit they are — the policy justifications for its dismissal are enormous. In an open letter to the residents of Providence, Mayor Cianci recently noted that the City “is home to a sizeable Muslim population,” that they are “contributing members of our community,” and that we “must deal with this crisis with tolerance and acceptance” and “respect those who embrace the teachings of Islam.” Needless to say, we wholeheartedly support those sentiments. But the same holds true for law-abiding Sikhs like Mr. Singh who, though not as numerous as Muslims, have also been the recent victims of unspeakable prejudice and hatred solely because of their appearance.

The continued prosecution of Mr. Singh under such dubious circumstances can only promote — however unintentionally — the ethnic discrimination and animosity that the Mayor and other city officials have so strongly condemned. The incredible taunting Mr. Singh encountered at his arrest and the immediate uninformed characterization of him as a terrorist by many people was bad enough. You cannot stop the discrimination he is likely to continue to face from people he encounters in his travels, but you can at least ensure that the government will not be a party to any action that has the direct effect of encouraging that attitude.

Absolutely no public interest is served by prosecuting Mr. Singh for what, ultimately, is the ‘crime’ of practicing his religion. Therefore, in the interests of justice, we urge you to have the charge against Mr. Singh dismissed. Only in this way can the City end the nightmare that he has experienced, a nightmare brought on solely because of his appearance and the color of his skin. We submit that people of all religions and of all ethnicities in the community will benefit greatly from such an action on your part.

Thank you for your consideration of this.

Sincerely,

Steven Brown
Executive Director

cc: The Hon. Vincent Cianci, Jr.
Commissioner John Partington
Steven Catalano
Mark Laroche

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