Thousands remember slain Texas deputy as 'ambassador of all that is good'

Sandeep Dhaliwal's funeral was attended by LEOs, officials from across the country


St. John Barned-Smith and Dylan McGuinness
Houston Chronicle 

HOUSTON — When he joined the Harris County Sheriff’s Office — and fought for the right to wear his turban and beard — Sandeep Dhaliwal became a trailblazer for Sikhs across North America.

NYPD Sgt. Gurvinder Singh, president of the Sikh Officers’ Association, first got to know Dhaliwal in 2016, after hearing about his mission to wear his articles of faith on duty.

Police officers from Texas, Louisiana, New York and Canada were some of thousands who gathered to remember HSCO Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal. (Photo/Harris County Sheriff's Office)
Police officers from Texas, Louisiana, New York and Canada were some of thousands who gathered to remember HSCO Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal. (Photo/Harris County Sheriff's Office)

“He was the motivation to a lot of guys here,” he said, standing inside the cavernous entrance of the Berry Center in northwest Houston on Wednesday, where he and dozens of other Sikhs from NYPD had traveled to pay their respects at Dhaliwal’s funeral.

Dhaliwal was shot to death Friday during a traffic stop. Robert Solis, 47, was arrested later that day and charged with murdering the deputy, a 42-year-old father of three.

The lawman’s effort inspired Sikhs in New York to fight for the same rights a year later, Singh said. “It’s a big part of us, our identity, to be able to wear our turban.”

They were among thousands of mourners that nearly filled the darkened Berry Center’s approximately 7,000-seat auditorium: everyday Houstonians, local Sikhs and innumerable law enforcement officers. Many wore blue to honor Dhaliwal. They flocked to Houston from every corner of Texas, from Louisiana, Florida, California and Canada.

They came to honor a man who became one of the most visible members of the Sikh community in North America, a gregarious unifier who mourners said embodied the ideals of tolerance, service and diversity prized by many Houstonians.

“Service to other human beings was center to his life,” said Hardam Singh Azad, the chairman of the Sikh National Center Gurdwara, who said Dhaliwal’s service left a mark on all who learned about it. “Even in his death, he has brought a tremendous sense of pride among Sikhs, Americans and people worldwide.”

Many in the Sikh community said Dhaliwal’s life was vital to young Sikhs growing up in Houston and across the country. The slain lawman led youth services at the temple and made an imprint on their lives.

“He was a hero to the younger generation,” Sartaj Singh Bal said before he walked into the memorial services.

Daljit and Rajbir Sra said Dhaliwal truly embodied what it means to be a Sikh.

“He made all of us feel so proud,” Rajbir Sra said, recounting how loving Dhaliwal was. “He doesn’t know hatred.”

The Sras said their faith calls on them to wish well-being for all people — even the man who ambushed Dhaliwal.

“No hatred, no revenge,” they said.

Dignitaries lauded Dhaliwal’s commitment to service and his kind nature.

“He was, and continues to be, the ambassador of all that is good, all that is just,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, declaring Sept. 27, “Sheriff Deputy Dhaliwal Day.”

“This community and the entire state of Texas are better for having known him,” said Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz was one of several Texas politicians who attended the funeral, along with Turner, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Judge Lina Hidalgo, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“Houston is the most diverse big city in America,” Cruz said. “Deputy Dhaliwal embodied that diversity and he was an ambassador for understanding — understanding that we need today and everyday going forward.”

Hidalgo said Dhaliwal’s generous spirit opened doors with many he met.

“We will not let our community be fearful, because the opposite of love is not hate, but fear,” she said. “We will not live in fear of another tragedy, we will not close our doors or our hearts, but rather go forward together.”

The ceremony, which lasted several hours, included a Sikh “kirtan,” which includes communal singing and prayer, and a traditional law enforcement memorial, with speeches by state and local politicians and the pomp and rituals customary to such funerals, including a pipe and drum corps, the procession of a riderless horse, a final radio call, a three volley salute and a missing man flyover of three helicopters.

During the second portion of the service, former sheriff Adrian Garcia, who hired Dhaliwal and instituted the policy allowing Sikhs to serve in their traditional turban, spoke directly to the slain deputy’s father.

“All he wanted to do was make you proud. And he did so, beautifully,” said Garcia, now a county commissioner “When you were watching, when you couldn’t see him. He was carrying your heart, your values, your name, your respect, into this incredible community.”

Current Sheriff Ed Gonzalez added, “Sandeep has brought this entire community together, in a very powerful way, in a way only Sandeep could do.”

Even as they mourned Dhaliwal, members of the Sikh Coalition also urged military and police agencies across the country to follow the example of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and pass religious accommodation policies of their own. Only about 25 of 15,400 law enforcement agencies in the United States have the policies, the organization said.

“We believe no Sikh should have to face the impossible decision of choosing between their faith and public service,” the letters said. “Deputy Dhaliwal’s service has shown that Sikhs have proven their mettle and desire to serve on the front lines of law enforcement.”

Manpreet K. Singh, a Houston attorney and board member of the Sikh Coalition, said the requests were a natural way to honor Dhaliwal’s legacy.

“It’s something he wanted for his life and career,” she said. The message to those agencies without similar policies is: “You can have a Sandeep too, if you wanted.”

Others didn’t know Dhaliwal but were so touched by his story that they wanted to pay their respects. Huma Ahmed and Tentra Randolph, who work in the Fort Bend County attorney’s office, said that’s what brought them to the Berry Center .

“We had heard so many amazing things about him, we just wanted to honor him,” Ahmed said.

They cited the portions of the ceremony when local leaders challenged those in the audience to go out and make change, as Dhaliwal did.

“I think we were all reminded that we need to serve the way he did,” Ahmed said. “When (Turner) said that one life can make a difference, I think that’s when it really resonated to all of us just what his life was.”

Gurvinder Singh, the NYPD officer, said that he believed Dhaliwal’s life would inspire many other Sikh’s to join law enforcement and follow his example.

“Even though we lost an officer, you’re going to see a lot more Sikh officers out there, and serving their community,” he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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