CYPRESS — In 2009, the Harris County Sheriff's Office started recruiting members of the Sikh community after a Sikh family whose home was burglarized said they were harassed by deputies.
Sandeep Dhaliwal, an observant Sikh, left a lucrative trucking business to join the sheriff's office as a deputy. He was the first Sikh deputy in Harris County. For a decade, Dhaliwal was a unifying figure in the Houston area, according to friends, colleagues and public officials who remembered him in a memorial service Wednesday attended by thousands.
"He was and continues to be all that is good, and all that is just,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, before declaring Sept. 27, the day of Dhaliwal’s death, “Sheriff Deputy Dhaliwal Day.” The crowd stood and cheered at his declaration.
Dhaliwal was shot and killed Friday afternoon during a routine traffic stop in a Houston suburb. The alleged gunman, Robert Solis, shot Dhaliwal twice in the back of the head as the deputy walked back to his squad car, authorities said.
The deputy was taken to the hospital but was pronounced dead a few hours later. Dhaliwal, 42, was a married father of three young children.
Dhaliwal made national news in 2015 when the sheriff’s office changed its policy to allow Dhaliwal to grow out his facial hair and wear a traditional Sikh turban while on patrol.
Among those who attended the traditional Sikh funeral on Wednesday were Sikh law enforcement officials from across the United States and from the United Kingdom and Canada. The service, which included a live music performance and prayer, was followed by a law enforcement ceremony.
There's still fear of Sikh people, of the unknown, said retired Staff Sgt. Jack Hundial, who traveled from Canada to honor Dhaliwal. But exposure to people like Dhaliwal shows who Sikh people are and what the religion really means, he added.
“He’s someone who made sacrifices to go into community service,” said Houston resident Rupinder Singh. “Very few people take that kind of initiative.”
Among the speakers were religious leaders, colleagues and elected officials including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Teal, royal blue, navy and shades in between filled the Berry Center of Northwest Houston, which can hold about 7,200 people and was almost to capacity for Dhaliwal’s service. The community chose to wear blue as a way to honor Dhaliwal and show respect for other members of law enforcement.
The service was “fit for a king,” said Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia, a former Harris County sheriff who recruited Dhaliwal . Outside, some businesses flew the United States and Texas flag at half-staff.
Those who knew him Dhaliwal remembered his warmth. They described his smile as “contagious” and from kids to adults, Dhaliwal “never met a stranger,” said Sgt. Adam Lightfoot, who worked with him for six and a half years.
An image of Dhaliwal hugging a young boy went viral after his death. Lightfoot said Dhaliwal never turned down a hug, a handshake or a chance to connect.
One of my favorite images of my friend Sandeep Dhaliwal is of him engaging w this child. At tonight’s vigil honoring Sandeep, I had the amazing privilege to connect with the same child, Connor. We both miss our friend & come together to remember him. #LongLiveDhaliwal #HouNews pic.twitter.com/eNbHd2lTHU— Ed Gonzalez (@SheriffEd_HCSO) October 1, 2019
He remembers responding to Dhaliwal’s call for back up early in his career. Lightfoot saw his friend had pulled over about six cars at once, alone. Dhaliwal explained to the sergeant that
is was so he could give the citations as efficiently as possible.
Lightfoot laughed, “He never lost that excitement.”
Army Captain Simratpal Singh, said, “on behalf of Sikh uniformed personnel and those who served previously” that their uniforms were “dyed slightly more red, white and blue with his sacrifice.”
A religious leader said Dhaliwal joins a history of Sikhs who developed a “deep legacy” of defending religious liberty for all religions. He described this as one of the values of the faith that Dhaliwal deeply embodied.
Singh is proud of Dhaliwal’s legacy of love and service, which “will continue to live on,” but his dream is that other Sikhs, “should they choose to don the uniform of his nation, that person should not have to fight to wear a turban and beard.”