A Sikh sheriff’s deputy in Texas who garnered national attention for gaining permission to wear a turban as part of his uniform, was killed Friday near Houston in what officials described as an ambush during a traffic stop.
Maj. Mike Lee of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said that the deputy, Sandeep Dhaliwal, made the stop at 12.23 pm local time (10.53 pm IST), and that nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. The deputy was speaking with the driver for about two minutes, Lee said during a news conference, and was headed back to his car when the driver came out brandishing a gun, ran up from behind and shot Dhaliwal in the head. The shooter was later arrested.
Gloom descended on Dhaliwal’s native village Dhaliwal Bet in Punjab’s Kapurthala district as news reached of his killing. The 42-year-old police officer and father of three had kept a close touch with his roots, and last visited the village in January this year. He was due to come again next month.
Houston police identified the gunman as Robert Solis, 47, who had an active parole violation warrant for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon from 2017. A weapon believed to be used in the shooting was recovered. A woman who was with Solis in the car was also taken into custody.
Solis has been charged with capital murder. There was no word on a possible motive for the shooting.
Dhaliwal had garnered national attention in 2015 after the sheriff’s office allowed him to wear the traditional articles of his Sikh faith, including a turban and a beard, while on patrol. In a statement praising the policy shift, the Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund had noted that the Harris County Sheriff’s Office was the largest in the country to have “a full-time Sikh American officer with his articles of faith intact due to a religious accommodation exception to their dress code policy”.
In Kapurthala, cousin Pawanpreet Singh said he had spoken to Dhaliwal just a day earlier. “Sandeep told me he had booked a ticket for October 11 for India. I was to go pick him up from the airport.” Talking about Dhaliwal’s “considerate” nature, he said he was sponsoring the education of two children in Punjab.
Dhaliwal’s uncle Kartar Singh said the whole community took pride in his achievements. Recalling Dhaliwal’s childhood, Kartar said he had gone to the US only at the age of 17, with his mother and two sisters. His father Piara Singh Dhaliwal had been living there for some years. “Sandeep studied at the village school and was a very good student. I had enrolled him at Janta College in Kartarpur for 10+1, but he left for the US soon after.”
Another uncle, Kuldeep Singh Sarai, said he would be going to the US to attend Dhaliwal’s funeral.
“Even after living in the US and working in police, he was was a down-to-earth man and always ready to help the needy,” said village sarpanch Yudhvir Singh.
At a news conference, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez praised Dhaliwal as a 10-year veteran of the sheriff’s office who “was known to everybody as someone with a giving heart” and who “represented his community with integrity, respect and pride”. He recalled that Dhaliwal had organised supplies to be delivered from California after Hurricane Harvey, and had traveled to Puerto Rico to help a colleague with hurricane relief efforts there.
The mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, praised Dhaliwal as “a bold and groundbreaking law enforcement officer in the eyes of our county, our state, our nation”. “The story of him putting the Sikh imperative of ‘seva’ — selfless service — on display as a peacekeeper went worldwide. In that role he was a walking lesson in tolerance and understanding, which are values Houstonians uphold here in the nation’s most diverse big city.”
The Director of the United Sikhs International Humanitarian Aid, Gurvinder Singh, said Dhaliwal was associated with them. “He was a lion heart, a selfless person and a gift to humanity. He led volunteers of the United Sikhs during several natural disasters in the US and India to help the needy.”