Shooting Of Sikh Army Veteran Divides Community : Code Switch Police had been called before to the home of the Gulf War veteran, who had been diagnosed with mental illness. But on Jan. 25, he was shot and killed, and his family is suing for wrongful death.
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Shooting Of Sikh Army Veteran Divides Community

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Shooting Of Sikh Army Veteran Divides Community

Shooting Of Sikh Army Veteran Divides Community

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Now, in late January, a mentally ill man was shot and killed by two police officers in Lodi, California. That's a town south of Sacramento. At first, this seemed like it was just one more tragic event involving a confrontation between police and a person suffering mental illness. But the facts in this case are in dispute. The victim was an Army veteran, also an American of Sikh ancestry. His death has stirred up that Sikh community and the city of Lodi as well. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: On a recent Saturday evening, more than 100 people gathered at the Sikh temple in the largely agricultural community of Lodi, about 35 miles south of Sacramento.


PALVINDER KAUR: Good evening. Today we are gathered here as a community in memory of Parminder Shergill.

GONZALES: Parminder Shergill was a 43-year-old Gulf War veteran who had served in Germany and Iraq. But he wound up dead at the hands of the police, just a few doors away from his home in Lodi. And there are more questions than answers about how and why he was killed.


KAUR: Today we are here because we want to learn the truth. Today we come together as a community to demand justice and stand together.

GONZALES: But there's a clear divide in this meeting. The elder Sikhs, men in turbans and women in their traditional dress salwaar kameez, sit quietly as the 20-somethings do most of the talking. Palvinder Kaur belongs to a group of young Sikhs called the Jakar movement. She helped organize this meeting, in part, Kaur says, to deal with the generational split in what to do about Shergill's death.

KAUR: There is an active Sikh youth that is acting for justice, asking for answers - demanding answers in some ways. And then there is also another segment of the community that wants to hush it down, that wants to just kind of put things to rest.

GONZALES: But putting to rest the death of Parminder Shergill doesn't appear likely. The controversy started in the morning of January 25. That's when Shergill's sister-in-law Kuldeep says she called 911 to ask the police to take the veteran to the VA hospital.


KULDEEP: He's going crazy. Just going crazy, attacking her.


KULDEEP: My mother-in-law, in the house.

WOMAN: Is he off his meds?

KULDEEP: Yes, he is.

GONZALES: Shergill's family says he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and later with PTSD, a few years after his honorable discharge from the Army in 1996. He was no stranger to the police. They had visited the Shergill home on five prior occasions. When two police officers arrived, they found Shergill wandering at a nearby park, and they called out to him to stop. But he ignored them and walked way back toward his house. The two officers followed him. Here's a recording of the police radio traffic.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: He has knife in his right hand. He's refusing my commands.

GONZALES: The two officers opened fire. Shergill was hit by 14 bullets.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Two Adam, four shots fired.

WOMAN: Copy.

POLICE OFFICER: Two Adam one, I got a man down! I need an ambulance, code three and a supervisor.

WOMAN: Copy.

GONZALES: In the immediate aftermath of the killing, the police said they had no choice but to shoot Shergill. And for 13 weeks, the police said nothing more, only that their investigation could take up to a year. It wasn't until after the Shergill family filed a wrongful death lawsuit that the police released these audio recordings and a statement detailing their version of events. The Lodi chief-of-police did not respond to NPR's request for an interview.


GONZALES: A few days after the killing, the Shergill family and their supporters in the Sikh American community mourned at the funeral for the dead veteran. Jack Johal is Shergill's cousin and a family spokesman.

JACK JOHAL: I can't make any sense of it. It makes no sense whatsoever.

GONZALES: Johal says the family has many unanswered questions. Did the veteran charge the police with a knife? Were police trained to deal with mentally ill people? How could they shoot a veteran? It's an important question to a family with a tradition of military service. Shergill's ancestors were among the first wave of Sikh immigrants who came to California in the early years of the 20th century, says Johal.

JOHAL: You know, it's a typical Indian immigrant story. The Sikhs are known either as farmers or warriors.

GONZALES: Johal says initially the community's reaction was relatively restrained and there was little demonstrable anger.

JOHAL: That's not the Sikh way. The Sikh way is, as I said, to be compassionate, to be honest, to be humble.

GONZALES: But not everyone agrees.

JASDEEP SINGH: I think there are certain parts of our community that don't want to shake up anything, and they want to be that model minority.

GONZALES: Jasdeep Singh is a 27-year-old undergraduate at UC Davis and a former Marine. Six years ago, he was in Fallujah. Now he's among the young Sikhs who say their community has been too patient in waiting for answers about the killing.

J. SINGH: You know, coming out onto the streets protesting, you know, and demanding for your right - demanding your rights, right? It's - to people that have kind of, you know, quietly lived in this country, it's a scary thing, right?

GONZALES: The town hall meeting at the Sikh temple in Lodi is meant to address that divide between an older, more cautious generation and a younger one that raises even more questions about the killing. What is the next step in the family's lawsuit? Why are the police officers still on duty? What should people know about PTSD? One man, Kulvinder Singh, says Sikhs need to raise their profile to get respect.

KULVINDER SINGH: Another thing we can do is go to Fourth of July, Veterans Day, other events dressed as Sikhs dress - American events, where Americans were fighting and representing America.

GONZALES: Still another meeting organizer, Deep Singh, sees an opportunity for the Sikh-American community to speak up about an issue that affects everyone touched by war.

DEEP SINGH: This is not a Sikh case. This is actually a case about a veteran. And as we have increasing number of veterans return from Afghanistan and Iraq, we want to make sure that such instances never happen again.

GONZALES: Singh says, if nothing else, he hopes this meeting and this tragedy will spur the Sikh community to find its voice and embrace their identity as Americans who can demand justice for their community. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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