Sikh arrested in Catonsville over ceremonial knife, released without charges

Harpreet Singh Khalsa has worn the ceremonial knife known as a kirpan every day since he converted to Sikhism nine years ago.

"We don't consider it a knife, but a visual reminder to stand up to justice," the 33-year-old Baltimore County man said.

But the kirpan is often a cause of misunderstanding by those outside the faith, including law enforcement. Khalsa, who owns a catering business, said he's been stopped multiple times by police, and was arrested again on Monday outside a Catonsville grocery store after a customer called police.

Khalsa said he explained to the officers that the knife is part of his religion, but they frisked him, took the kirpan, placed him in handcuffs and drove him to the local precinct.

Khalsa was later released without charges, after police "confirmed that the knife was a kirpan and part of his religion, and not a threat to the community," Baltimore County Officer Jennifer Peach, wrote in an email.

"The officer did follow all Maryland and county laws properly in this incident," Peach said. "There is no known exception to the deadly weapons laws at this time."

She said the department is providing education and guidance to its officers about Sikhs and their culture.

"This incident clearly illustrates that this is an increasingly diverse county, and BCoPD works hard to understand and respect the many cultures that call Baltimore County home," Peach wrote in an email. "Sometimes this poses challenges to our officers, but cultural competency is part of the job, and we are committed to it."

Such interactions between Sikhs and police are not uncommon.

In many cases, Sikh advocates say, it's the result of ignorance about traditions of the religion, which was founded more than 500 years ago in the Punjab region of South Asia. Sikhism is now the world's fifth-largest religion. More than 500,000 Sikhs live in the United States.

As part of their tradition, many Sikhs wear the five articles of faith, which include the kirpan, kesh (long hair), kanga (a small comb), kara (a steel bracelet), and the kachera (shorts).

"The kirpan obligates a Sikh to the ideals of generosity, compassion and service to humanity," Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the New York-based Sikh Coalition, wrote in an email. "It acts as a reminder to its bearer of a Sikh's solemn duty to protect others and promote justice for all."

The Sikh Coalition was founded in 2001 in response to violence against Sikhs after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The organization has assisted individuals in more than 30 criminal cases involving kirpans, and none have resulted in convictions, Kaur said. In most instances, she said, prosecutors dropped the charges.

"Like the broader American community, most police departments have very little knowledge about the Sikh faith and its religious practices," she said.

Khalsa said he was shopping at around 2:40 p.m. on Monday when police approached him, walked him out of the store and took his kirpan.

Rachel Bereson Lachow captured the arrest on video and posted it to her Facebook page. The 54-second video has been shared 1.6 million times and received hundreds of comments.

Lachow said she watched Khalsa leave the store with police. She said the officers told him to keep his hands away from the knife until they removed it from him.

Lachow said Khalsa continued to tell the officers he was a Sikh and showed the officers his five articles of faith.

Lachow said she hopes the video will raise awareness.

"I think it's been an enormous force for good," she said.

Khalsa, who was born as Justin Smith and raised as a Quaker, said he hopes his experience will help educate the police and the community about his religion because he and many Sikhs have experienced discrimination.

While police said there is no exception to the state's weapons laws, courts have overwhelmingly found that Sikhs can carry kirpans, said Michael Meyerson, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

A dangerous weapon is determined by intent, Meyerson said. For example, police would not arrest a carpenter carrying potentially dangerous power tools because the intent is not for violence but to build. Conversely, a brick has many nonviolent uses, but with intent could be a deadly weapon.

Meyerson said the police officers should not have arrested Khalsa. A kirpan, "which is known as a sign of devotion," is not a dangerous weapon under the law, he said.

Sikhs still face restrictions. The Transportation Security Administration prohibits "religious knives, swords and other objects" through security checkpoints at airports and requires that the items be packed in checked baggage, agency spokesman Mike England wrote in an email.

Khalsa said he wants to create protections for Sikhs in Maryland. He said the issue will be discussed at an upcoming meeting at the Sikh Association of Baltimore in Randallstown.

"There's no oversight whatsoever, so anything can happen to people in our community," he said. "There's just so much that needs to be done here."

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