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Houston Mourns Death Of Sandeep Dhaliwal, First Sikh Sheriff's Deputy


Now to Houston, where thousands of people gathered to honor the life and legacy of a sheriff's deputy who was shot and killed last week. Sandeep Dhaliwal was a popular figure in his community, but he was also a trailblazer nationwide. As the first Sikh deputy in Harris County, Dhaliwal was one of the first law enforcement officers in the country permitted to display articles of his faith - a beard and a turban. Houston Public Media's Elizabeth Trovall has this remembrance.

ELIZABETH TROVALL, BYLINE: Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal believed public service was in his blood. He had this to say at a press conference in 2015.


SANDEEP DHALIWAL: I always had the desire to be a police officer, as my father served in the navy - Indian navy, and my uncle served in the Indian military.

TROVALL: Dhaliwal also had a literal call to service. Former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia had visited Dhaliwal's congregation after the department mishandled an incident involving the Sikh community.

ADRIAN GARCIA: I needed the community to encourage that their sons and daughters join the department so that I can change the department from the inside out.

TROVALL: After Garcia's visit, Dhaliwal joined the department. He initially served without his articles of faith. Several years later, Garcia changed department policy to accommodate Dhaliwal's turban and beard. It was a first for the county and the state. Garcia says he warned Dhaliwal about the possible consequences.

GARCIA: In uniform, you're a target. When you wear a turban, you become even a bigger target.

TROVALL: Garcia says he remembers Dhaliwal's response.

GARCIA: Don't worry about it, sheriff. They'll understand. And we're going to change minds, and we're going to touch hearts. And that's what he did.

TROVALL: Christina Garza knew Dhaliwal when she was a spokeswoman at the sheriff's office. She says she would call him a rock star. Garza texted that to him last week when she was traveling out of state and her Sikh driver had heard of Dhaliwal. She says she treasures his reply. Garza pulls out her phone and reads back his text.

CHRISTINA GARZA: He's like, no rock star - still a cop and always be a cop - and then two exclamation points and the smiley face. And so I have that. I'm glad I do. But that's who he was.

TROVALL: It started as a routine traffic stop. Last Friday, Dhaliwal stopped Robert Solis in the suburbs outside of Houston. The sheriff's office says Dhaliwal appeared to have a regular conversation with Solis and walked back to his vehicle. Officers say Solis then got out of his car and shot Dhaliwal in the back of the head. Solis, who was wanted for a parole violation, is in custody. He's been charged with capital murder. Police do not believe the shooting was a hate crime.


TROVALL: Since Dhaliwal's death, Houstonians and the international Sikh community have been paying their respects. On Monday night, an evening vigil in Houston brought in hundreds of mourners.

BOBBY SINGH: Sandeep Dhaliwal is an American hero.

TROVALL: Bobby Singh is a friend of Dhaliwal's. He says Dhaliwal embodied a central value of Sikhism - service - and he did it with compassion and a smile.

SINGH: I think service - and true service - is really when you extend those courtesies to everyone that you touch. And that was the calling for Sandeep Dhaliwal because, really, he touched everybody through his service.

TROVALL: Dhaliwal was 42 years old. He is survived by his three children and his wife. Sikhs believe after someone dies, their soul leaves their body and lives on. Bobby Singh says he believes that in Houston, Dhaliwal's legacy will live on, too.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Trovall in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYLER BURKUM SONG, "HUMMINGBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Trovall