Page last updated at 05:52 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 06:52 UK

Victims to select own-faith officers

By Catrin Nye
BBC Asian Network

Palbinder Singh
Mr Singh says Sikh officers will have specialist knowledge of the culture

Sikh victims of crime in London are to be given the option of asking for a police officer of their own faith to work on their case.

This new service from the Metropolitan Police (Met) aims to make use of the officers' specialist knowledge of Punjabi culture to help with cases like forced marriage and so-called honour crime.

Officers within the Met have told the BBC Asian Network that crimes in the community have gone unsolved and unreported because of a lack of understanding of the culture by officers from a "white" background.

Palbinder Singh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Sikh Association (MPSA) said: "It's about understanding and appreciating difference.

"I don't believe a white officer is ever going to be fully conversant with a Sikh for example.

"We have got evidence in the most serious type of crimes where Punjabi culture itself is the issue, that they haven't been properly investigated."

Raise victim's confidence

The new service will not allow victims of crime to prevent a white officer taking on their case.

However, they can ask for a Sikh officer to be involved and, if required, be their contact with the police.

A website also has been set up allowing crimes to be reported online.

Officers hope the website will give a voice to women who may be in danger of honour-based violence or forced marriage, or who are restricted from making an unsupervised phone call or leaving their home.

The Met said the new service, which has been pioneered by the MPSA, could be extended to other minority groups in future.

Jagdeesh Singh
They [police] did not understand the methods of cover up in the Punjabi community
Jagdeesh Singh, murder victim's brother

Ch Supt Joanna Young, from the Met's Criminal Justice Policy Unit, said: "We want more victims to feel confident that when they do come forward, their needs will be addressed.

"I think it's a great start and what we need to do is evaluate it... Does it make a difference? Can we sustain it?

"Then if it's clear it's a success, I would encourage the other (police) associations to do likewise," she added.

Jagdeesh Singh, whose 27-year-old sister Surjit Athwal was murdered in a so-called honour killing, supports the scheme.

In 2007 Mrs Athwal's husband and mother-in-law were convicted of her murder, almost 10 years after she went missing from home.

He said the case "exposed many gaps".

"They did not understand the methods of cover up in the Punjabi community.

"The investigation only started to produce results when we had a Sikh officer allocated to the investigation.

"Prior to that for years and years we had a group of well-meaning officers who had great difficulty in comprehending the whole idea of an honour crime or honour killing," Mr Singh said.

'Separating communities'

Mr Singh does concede that there needs to be more awareness of cultural crimes right across the police force.

"We need officers to become a lot more aware of the diverse communities they're policing and that applies equally to Sikh officers," he said. "They need to be able to read the cultural signs in a crime."

Other Sikhs in London, like Sandeep Singh and Sharan Kaur, agreed.

Surjit Athwal
Mrs Athwal's case progressed after a Sikh officer became involved

However, arguing against such policing divisions, they said they are Sikh but also passionately British.

"It doesn't matter what religion, what creed, colour you are, you need to be aware of issues that people deal with," Sharan Kaur said.

"Because then you go into saying 'Muslim officers for Muslim crimes'.

"Even though it may be cultural or even religious, police officers need the diplomacy to work with any customer, any crime. Sikhism is about not separating," he added.

Palbinder Singh said he understood there would be accusations of separating communities, but that criticism does not worry him.

"If this is going to help vulnerable victims of crime - people who don't have the confidence in the police - to come forward, then please make all the accusations you want."

You can hear Catrin's report at 1230 and 1800 BST on Wednesday on the BBC Asian Network on DAB digital radio, Digital TV (Sky 0119, Freeview 709, Virgin Media 912) or online via the BBC iPlayer.

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