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A Life Of Service: Houston Remembers Sikh Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal

A roadside memorial continues to grow for Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal.
Lucio Vasquez
Houston Public Media
A roadside memorial continues to grow for Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal.

A man loved by those he knew and admired by thousands he didn’t will be laid to rest Wednesday, as mourners gather in Cypress to honor fallen Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal. 

The 42-year-old father of three was shot and killed late last week during what started as a routine traffic stop. 

Dhaliwal was the first observant Sikh deputy in Harris County, and one of the first law enforcement officers nationwide to wear Sikh articles of faith while on duty — a beard and turban. He represented two communities: law enforcement and the followers of Sikhism.

His sudden passing brought an outpouring of support from Houstonians and the international Sikh community. In the days following his death, mourners built impromptu memorials to Dhaliwal. On Sunday, Houston Texans football fans observed a moment of silence. 

At sunset on Monday, a candlelight vigil held on the banks of a neighborhood lake drew hundreds of community members. As dusk faded to night, mourners stood as a bagpipers played “Amazing Grace.” Two men held a banner that read, in large red letters, “LOVE ONE ANOTHER.”

On Wednesday, mourners will gather at the Berry Center in Cypress. A Sikh religious ceremony is scheduled for 10:30 a.m., followed by a law enforcement ceremony at 11:30. Both are open to the public.

“He embodied the good in humanity, he embodied service to others, he embodied kindness and everybody was his friend,” said Christina Garza, a former sheriff’s office spokesperson who became friends with the deputy. 

Last Friday, Dhaliwal pulled over Robert Solis in the suburbs outside of Houston as part of a normal traffic stop. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office says Dhaliwal appeared to have a regular conversation with Solis and walked back to his vehicle. Officers say Solis then got out of his car and shot Dhaliwal in the back of the head. Solis is in custody, and has been charged with capital murder.

A commitment to public service

“I always had a desire to be a police officer,” Dhaliwal said at a 2015 press conference, adding that both his father and uncle served in the Indian navy and military. “As a Sikh American I felt the need of representation from the Sikh community in law enforcement.” 

Dhaliwal had his chance to serve after a visit from former Harris County Sheriff and now County Commissioner Adrian Garcia. The then-Sheriff spoke to the future officer’s congregation after the department mishandled an incident involving the Sikh community.

“I needed the community to encourage their sons and daughters to join the department so that I can change the department from the inside out,” Garcia told News 88.7.

Dhaliwal later joined the force, and to the public, he looked like any other officer. Initially, Dhaliwal served without wearing the traditional articles of faith for observant Sikhs. In 2015, Garcia changed department policy allowing officers like Dhaliwal to wear religious dress. It was a first for the county and the state.

While the move was meant to keep deputies from having to choose between religious customs and serving the community, Garcia says he warned Dhaliwal about possible consequences.

“In uniform you’re a target, when you wear a turban you become a bigger target,” Garcia said he told Dhaliwal. 

Garcia says he remembers Dhaliwal’s response: “Don’t worry about it Sheriff,” Garcia recalls him saying. “They’ll understand and we’re going to change minds and we’re going to touch hearts.” 

“And that’s what he did,” Garcia said.

Bobby Singh is a friend of Dhaliwal’s, who also works with law enforcement to make them more aware of Sikhism. 

He says Dhaliwal’s life embodied a central value of Sikhism – service. And that his friend did it with compassion and a smile. 

“I think service – and true service – is really when you extend those courtesies to everyone that you touch,” he said. “And that was the calling for Sandeep Dhaliwal, because he touched everyone through his service.”

Sikhs believe after someone dies, their soul leaves their body and lives on. 

Bobby Singh says he believes that in Houston, Dhaliwal’s legacy will live on, too. 

Katie Watkins contributed to this report.