Houston mourns 'trailblazer' Sikh officer killed in line of duty

(RNS) – In 2015, Sandeep Dhaliwal made headlines as the first Sikh sheriff’s deputy in Texas who was allowed to wear his turban, beard and other articles of faith while on duty.

“As a Sikh American, I felt the need to represent the Sikh community in law enforcement,” Dhaliwal, a deputy with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Houston, told media at the time. “Serving in the police force is natural to us, as Sikhs value service.”

On Monday (Sept. 30), Houston mourned Dhaliwal after the 10-year veteran of law enforcement was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop last week. 

“Sandeep was a trailblazer for the Sikh American community,” said Bobby Singh, southeast regional director for the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “He served not just the Sikh community here in Houston with honor and dignity, but all of his community. He did his job well and was respected by all.”

Authorities have charged 47-year-old Robert Solis, who had an active parole violation warrant for a 2017 aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, with capital murder. Police say Solis followed Dhaliwal back to his patrol car after a non-combative conversation and shot him twice “in a coldblooded manner, ambush-style,” landing a fatal shot in the back of the deputy’s head. Police have not yet publicly declared or speculated on a motive.

Solis, who appeared in court Monday and was denied bail, will likely face the death penalty, according to the judge. "It is a likely outcome that death will be the sentence here," said Judge Chris Morton after the hearing, according to local news reports. "No bond is appropriate."

A second suspect, who has not been identified publicly, was also arrested.

“(Dhaliwal) wore the turban,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told reporters in a press conference. “He represented his community with integrity, respect and pride. And he was respected by all.”

Dhaliwal, 41, left behind his wife, Harwinder Kaur Dhaliwal, their two daughters and one son. 

This photo provided by Harris County Sheriff's Office shows Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal. The funeral for Dhaliwal, a Texas sheriff’s deputy who was fatally shot during a traffic stop, will be held Oct. 2, 2019, at the Berry Center in Cypress, near Houston. Dhaliwal, who was slain on Sept. 27, 2019, was the first Sikh deputy on the force. (Harris County Sheriff's Office via AP)

The Sikh National Center, a Houston gurdwara, is hosting a 48-hour-long Akhand Path, a continuous reading of the entire Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, set to conclude Wednesday. 

The fallen deputy will be cremated at a local funeral home later Wednesday afternoon, with final prayers planned afterward at the Sikh National Center.

Locals arranged a community-led vigil for the deputy Friday night after news of his death broke. The sheriff’s office has also planned a public candlelight vigil on Monday night at Deputy Darren Goforth Park.

Thousands of community members are also expected to gather at Houston’s Berry Center on Wednesday to honor Dhaliwal’s life in a public ceremony, which will begin with an hour of traditional Sikh prayer and continue with a ceremony by the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

Sikh congregations and communities from New York to Melbourne to Punjab, India, where Dhaliwal is originally from, held vigils in his memory and honored the deputy in their regular Ardas worship service, according to United Sikhs, a humanitarian aid non-profit organization.

A GoFundMe campaign set up by Sikhs of Houston to help his family cover expenses and help pay for his three children's education has raised $420,000. Another crowdfunding campaign by United Sikhs for the family raised more than $175,000, and the organization’s Facebook campaign raised another $400,000.

Both Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is running for president, posted tweets mourning the fallen deputy.

Houston-area locations of the pizza chain Papa John’s announced that it will be donating all profits on Oct. 1 to Dhaliwal's family. A local Chick-fil-A restaurant location set up a missing man table as a memorial in honor of Dhaliwal.

Alan Bernstein, the Houston mayor's spokesman, told NPR that Dhaliwal was “a unifying symbol” for the community.

“He used his appearance as a conversation starter for educating people about what Sikhs are about, what their values are, including that of selfless service and the long history that Sikhs have for serving in the military and/or law enforcement," said Bernstein, who worked as a spokesman for the sheriff's office in 2015.

A decade ago, Dhaliwal was the owner of a successful trucking business. He sold the company and joined the force in 2008 as a detention officer after the county’s sheriff visited his gurdwara. Within four years, he became the county’s first observant Sikh deputy. Then, in 2015, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office became one of the largest sheriff’s offices in the nation to allow a deputy to serve while keeping their Sikh articles of faith, following police departments in the District of Columbia and Riverside, California.

Dhaliwal was active in coordinating disaster-relief efforts and delivering supplies to affected areas after Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria. He worked with local at-risk youth and led a volunteer team that delivered water and other supplies to drought-stricken Indian farmers. He also assisted at-risk youth in Houston.

He served as director of homeland security for United Sikhs, advising Sikh communities on preventing hate crimes and dealing with threats. The group told CNN that it has noticed a spike in volunteer registrations since Dhaliwal’s death.

“This is a tragedy for the Greater Houston Area and the Sikh American community across the country,” Kiran Kaur Gill, SALDEF’s executive director, said. “Deputy Dhaliwal was a hero to the local community in Houston and an example to all Americans for his dedicated career as a law enforcement officer and his community service efforts out of uniform.”

Elsewhere in Texas last week, Airman 1st Class Sunjit Singh Rathour became the first Sikh to graduate from Air Force basic training while wearing a turban, beard and unshorn hair, per a religious accommodation received upon enlistment with the Air Force through working with the Sikh American Veterans Alliance and American Civil Liberties Union.