For the residents of one of the largest communities in Texas, Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal was a lot more than a law enforcement officer.
He was jovial, kind, a trailblazer for his faith and a beacon for his community.
“He laughed and joked with all of us, and left a bright impression on my son who is deaf,” a message to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office from a resident said.
Nearly five years ago, Dhaliwal became the first deputy in his department to wear a turban and beard while in his police uniform, proudly representing his Sikh religion – which preaches equality and service to others.
This week, Dhaliwal was gunned down in midday during a traffic stop, in “a cold-blooded manner, ambush style,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a press conference. A 47-year-old man has been charged with capital murder in connection to the deputy’s killing, the sheriff’s office said.
In the hours since his death, the community that loved and admired the 10-year-veteran of the sheriff’s office has gathered in impromptu vigils and used social media to honor who Dhaliwal was.
“He was a bold and groundbreaking law enforcement officer in the eyes of our county, our state, our nation, and around the world, because he sought and received a permission to patrol while wearing the outward signs of his Sikh faith, including a turban and beard,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement Friday night.
He was loved by the Sikh community
In 2015, the sheriff’s office made their decision official to allow Dhaliwal to wear a dastaar and beard with his uniform, CNN affiliate KTRK reported.
“Sandeep has been everything we’ve asked of a public servant,” then-sheriff Adrian Garcia had said. “He’s been a servant leader and my commitment to the community was that we’d make sure that tokenism or window dressing wouldn’t be how we count change, but rather that we’d make a meaningful difference.”
The deputy said he “felt the need to represent the Sikh community in law enforcement.” The religion is the fifth largest in the world, officials have told CNN. There are more than 25 million Sikhs around the world and about 500,000 in the US, according to The Sikh Coalition.
In the hours since his death, the deputy was described as a trailblazer multiple times.
The mayor called Dhaliwal a “walking lesson in tolerance and understanding, which are values Houstonians uphold here in the nation’s most diverse city.”
“The whole community is under the shock even now,” said Harjit Singh Galhotra, a member of the Sikh National Center near Jersey Village where Dhaliwal worshiped.
“Some people don’t want to even believe that this happened,” he told CNN affiliate KPRC. “He was very dear with all the people and he had a lot of friends in this community. We’re going to miss him really bad.”
Another member of the center told the affiliate Dhaliwal was an “essential element” of their community.
The deputy’s funeral will be held within three days of his death, as is Sikh tradition, the affiliate reported.
He dedicated his life to service
There are “simply no words to adequately express our heartbreak, our sadness at this time,” sheriff Gonzalez said Friday.
The deputy had a “heart of gold,” former sheriff and now Harris County police commissioner Garcia said. “He treated his brothers and sisters in law enforcement as if they were just brothers and sisters. He thought of them before he thought of himself.”
“He thought of the broader community before he thought of himself.”
When Dhaliwal wasn’t serving with the force, he was always finding more ways to help his community.
In the days following Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston in 2017, Dhaliwal organized people to help from California, sheriff Gonzalez said, according to KTRK. The deputy had so many people and supplies lined up, they needed an 18-wheeler to bring them into Houston, Gonzalez said.
And after Hurricane Maria tore apart Puerto Rico, Dhaliwal and Garcia went to the island to help in any way they could, the affiliate reported.
He grieved a fellow officer just 4 years ago
Dhaliwal was the one consoling his community just a few years back, when a fellow officer, Deputy Darren Goforth, was killed in northwest Harris County.
“He’s one of the reasons I am in uniform today,” Dhaliwal had said, according to KTRK. He was the one back then telling the community how to stand strong and support each other.
“Just wear blue,” the deputy had said. “Wear blue and be proud of that. And that shows support to law enforcement. Simple as that.”
This time, the people who gathered at a community-led candlelight vigil Friday night were there to honor him.
Dhaliwal leaves behind his wife and three children.