Sheriff’’s Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal gained national attention in 2015 when the Harris County Sheriff’s Office allowed him to become one of first Sikhs in the country to wear a traditional turban and keep his beard long in accordance with his faith.
His death on Friday, at the hands of a wanted fugitive who allegedly shot him in cold blood in the back of the head following a routine traffic stop, has shaken the Houston area.
Residents staged an impromptu, candle-lit vigil on Friday night, and flooded the sheriff’s office with fond memories and videos of the fallen deputy. In one video, which the sheriff’s department shared to Twitter, Dhaliwal can be seen letting a young boy lock him in handcuffs. In another, he can be seen collecting supplies for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
“He was there all day every day, loading trucks, handing out food—he went above and beyond,” said Gurwin Ahuja of We Are Sikhs, an organization that worked with Dhaliwal on the Harvey relief effort. “He was doing this difficult job, but he had this joyousness about him that uplifted people during a difficult time.”
Dhaliwal was also seen as an inspiration for other Sikhs in law enforcement. He joined the force in 2009, at a tense time for the department and the Sikh community, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia told The Daily Beast.
The year before, a different deputy had responded to reports of a robbery at a Sikh family's home and wound up putting the entire family in handcuffs. The incident became a “lightning rod” in the community, Garcia said. He decided to visit a Sikh temple and ask members of the community to join the force. Dhaliwal was the only one in the crowd to answer his call.
Years later, when Garcia began allowing practicing Sikhs to wear their articles of faith on the job, Dhaliwal was the first officer to don a turban and full beard—outward symbols of spiritual devotion in the Sikh tradition.
“[Dhaliwal] looked beyond himself and he said, ‘Can you imagine what this will say to the Sikh community, to the Indian community, what it will say to the diversity of the county that you welcome anyone who wants to serve and allow us to be who we are?’” said Garcia, now the county police commissioner.
The department currently employs one other Sikh deputy and several more community members in civilian roles. Other departments around the country have followed. For example, in late 2016 the NYPD began allowing Sikh officers to wear a navy blue turban fastened with police brass in what the police commissioner hailed as a “major change in our uniform policy.”
But Manpreet Kaur Singh, a local attorney who helped lobby the sheriff’s department form the policy change, said he never imagine Dhaliwal would die this way.
“When you’re celebrating an accommodation you never anticipate that the results of that accommodation could be that you lose your life,” he told The Daily Beast.
At this point, authorities say they do not believe the killing was a hate crime.
“We don’t have any evidence right now to indicate that’s the case,” said Harris County Sheriff's spokesman Jason Spencer. “Our indications are this is an individual who had an active parole violation and his motivation was not to go back to prison.”
The suspect, Robert Solis, has been a wanted fugitive since 2017, when he violated parole on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, authorities said. He has previously been charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery and driving under the influence, according to Harris County court records.
Authorities say dashboard camera footage from Dhaliwal’s police vehicle shows the sheriff's deputy talking with Solis, 47, after pulling him over for running a stop sign. The conversation appeared routine, authorities said.
But when Dhaliwal turned to walk back to his patrol car, Solis got out and ran toward the deputy with a gun and shot the officer twice in the back of head. The suspect “basically just shot him in a very ruthless, cold-blooded way,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a press conference.
Colleagues responded after a passerby called 911 to report a police officer had been shot. Dhaliwal was airlifted to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Police also questioned a woman who was in the passenger seat during the traffic stop, authorities said in a Saturday court hearing. The woman said Solis warned her they were about to be pulled over and that he had tickets, investigators said. She said Dhaliwal allowed her to leave before the shooting occurred.
The woman told investigators she was with a friend when Solis allegedly called and said he had just shot a police officer and to come pick him up, investigators said. She told police that she didn’t believe him at first, but that he called the friend and told him the same thing.
Approximately an hour after the shooting, deputies found a man matching images taken from the dash cam in a nearby Kroger lot. When stopped by police, the suspect, who was later identified as Solis, became “irate and refused to identify himself,” investigators said. Police later recovered surveillance video showing him dumping the Glock .45 caliber semi automatic handgun in a trash can.
Investigators said Solis allegedly confirmed during questioning that he had been pulled over for a traffic stop. It was not clear if he had been asked about the shooting and if so what he said. Solis is being held without bail in Harris County jail and could not immediately be reached for comment.
The murder happened almost four years to the day after the shooting death of Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth, according to Gonzalez. The sheriff said in a tweet that the two slain officers were “close friends,” and that Dhaliwal was the first deputy on the scene to Goforth’s murder, which took place roughly a mile away from where Dhaliwal was shot.
A GoFundMe for Dhaliwal’s family had raised more than $68,000 by Saturday afternoon, approximately 15 hours after it was first established. Singh said he and fellow community leaders organized the fundraiser on behalf of Dhaliwal’s widow and three children, who were overwhelmed by the flood of support after the officer’s death.
“It’s just [come] from all avenues—people who you would never even think,” said Singh, who noted that his opposing counsel had donated to the fund. “It’s just been overwhelming. I wish there was a better adjective to describe it.”
Dhaliwal had recently returned from a volunteer trip to Puerto Rico to help victims of the hurricane there, according to Gonzalez. He was still remembered in the Houston community for helping rebuild homes, delivering food, and find aid money for first responders who were affected by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Ahuja said.
Becoming the first person in the sheriff’s department to wear the articles of faith while serving was just another embodiment of those values, he added.
“That’s what the turban represented,” Ahuja said. “It represented a commitment to stand up for the equality of all people. He wanted to wear the turban on his head and live out those values as a police officer.”