UNC Charlotte apologizes for handcuffing Sikh student after 911 knife call

UNC Charlotte

University of North Carolina Charlotte Chancellor Sharon Gaber apologized Friday after a video showed a campus police officer handcuffing a follower of the Sikh faith for having a knife in the university’s student union.

“Further investigation showed the item was a kirpan, an article of faith in Sikhism,” Gaber said in a message to the campus community posted on the university’s website, UNCC.edu.

Initiated Sikhs must have such articles of faith with them at all times, according to the Sikh Coalition, an organization that defends the civil rights of members of the religion.

Just before 5:30 p.m. Friday, the young man who was handcuffed posted a 44-second video on Twitter of the encounter, which took place Thursday.

The video shows the student relaxed in a sofa chair when the officer approaches and grabs the kirpan, which rests on the student’s stomach-chest area attached to a long and narrow strap.

The officer moves the kirpan to the side of the student’s body and grabs the student’s right arm to get him to stand up, the video shows. The officer applies handcuffs to the student’s wrists, which are positioned at the student’s back.

‘I got cuffed for “resisting”’

The student rolls his eyes, smiles and half-laughs in disbelief as the officer handcuffs him, according to the video.

“I wasn’t going to post this, but I don’t think I will receive any support from @unccharlotte,” the student wrote on his Twitter video post. “I was told someone called 911 and reported me, and I got cuffed for ‘resisting’ because I refused to let the officer take my kirpan out of the miyaan. @CLTNinerNews.”

Copies of the video post quickly spread across the country.

@unccharlotte must apologize & expedite accommodations for Sikh students wearing Kirpans,” the California Sikh Youth Alliance posted on Twitter Friday. “This is a grotesque breach of religious freedom and highly irregular given the Kirpaan’s legal standing in many states which are home to the Sikh community.

“UNCC must speak up,” the alliance said.

911 call reported person with a knife

Gaber said police handcuffed the person after campus dispatch received a 911 call on Thursday reporting someone had a knife in the building.

“Police officers responded to the scene and engaged the individual in question,” according to Gaber’s message. “During this interaction, the individual was placed in handcuffs while officers took possession of the object. The handcuffs were removed after the object was retrieved.”

Only then did further investigation confirm the knife was a kirpan, Gaber said.

State law and university policy bar people from having knives and “other edged instruments” on them while on campus, Gaber explained in the message, which also was signed by Brandon Wolfe, chief diversity officer at the campus.

“But we will use this as a learning opportunity by engaging in constructive dialogue with Sikh students and employees,” Gaber and Wolfe said.

On Twitter Friday, the Sikh Coalition said it was aware of a “disturbing video” of the incident.

“We are in contact with the young man in the video; we have provided him with resources and will continue to offer guidance moving forward,” the coalition said on Twitter.

Because the man hasn’t retained the coalition for legal services, the coalition can’t comment on his behalf, a coalition spokesman told the Observer on Saturday.

Kirpan’s vital role in the Sikh faith

A kirpan resembles a knife or sword and is “typically sheathed and worn with a gatra (a strap) underneath clothing,” according to the kirpan fact sheet on SikhCoalition.org.

The word “kirpan” derives from two Punjabi words, according to the coalition: “Kirpa,” which means an act of kindness or a favor, and “Aan,” meaning honor and self-respect.

Kirpans figure prominently in ceremonies marking major life events, such as weddings and burials, and in congregational settings, according to the coalition.

‘Every Niner should feel welcomed’

In their message, Gaber and Wolfe told the campus community they were confident of finding “reasonable measures and educational opportunities that both protect the safety of our campus and the religious practices of our community members.”

“Our diversity makes us a better, richer, more successful community,” according to the message. “We want every Niner to feel welcomed, supported and safe.

“We apologize that is not what this young man felt in our union yesterday,” Gaber and Wolfe wrote. “We are committed to ensuring it doesn’t happen again.”