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Sikh deputy killed in ‘coldblooded’ shooting after making history in Texas, sheriff says

Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal, center, was fatally shot Friday during a traffic stop. He was his department's first Sikh deputy. (Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle/AP)

One of the first sheriff’s deputies in the country to wear a traditional Sikh turban on duty was fatally shot from behind Friday while conducting a traffic stop in the Houston area, authorities said.

Sandeep Dhaliwal, a 10-year veteran of law enforcement, was shot multiple times by one of two people in the stopped car, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told reporters.

“He wore the turban. He represented his community with integrity, respect and pride,” Gonzalez said. “And again, he was respected by all.”

Dhaliwal, 41, was returning to his patrol car around 1 p.m. when a man got out of the stopped car with a pistol and shot him “in a coldblooded manner, ambush-style,” Gonzalez said. He said he did not know the reason for the stop or the motive for the shooting.

First responders brought Dhaliwal to a hospital, where he was declared dead around 4 p.m.

Robert Solis, 47, was charged with capital murder in connection with the killing, the sheriff’s office announced Friday. He had an active parole-violation warrant in a January 2017 case in which he was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

A woman whom police believed to be a passenger in the stopped car was also in custody Friday, the sheriff’s office said. Officials said they had confiscated the gun they believed Solis used in the shooting.

Texas sheriff allows Sikh officers to wear beards, turbans on patrol

Dhaliwal, whom his colleagues described as a “trailblazer,” owned a lucrative trucking business before he sold it to join the sheriff’s department, said Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia. Dhaliwal wanted to build a bridge between the department and the Houston area’s large Sikh community because of a prior “mishap,” Garcia said.

Garcia did not offer details about that incident, but The Washington Post previously reported that he reached out to Sikhs in 2009 because of a confrontation with a Sikh family the prior year. When the family called to report a burglary, deputies reportedly were alarmed to see the men wearing beards and turbans and carrying small daggers, which Sikhs sometimes wear at their waists as a reminder of their faith’s martial history. The deputies called for more officers and interrogated the family, The Post reported.

A husband and a father of three children, Dhaliwal joined the Harris County Sheriff’s Office as a detention officer and worked his way up. He was the first adherent of Sikhism, a monotheistic religion that originated in India, to become a deputy.

The Harris County sheriff in 2015 announced that Dhaliwal would be allowed to wear his religion’s beard and turban while on patrol. At the time, only police departments in the District of Columbia and Riverside, Calif., had made that accommodation.

Dhaliwal was known to have a giving heart, Gonzalez said. He coordinated the arrival of a tractor-trailer that brought donations from California to the Houston area in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey. When a colleague’s relatives in Puerto Rico needed help after Hurricane Maria the same year, Gonzalez said, Dhaliwal joined the department’s trip to provide aid there.

Dhaliwal’s last actions were ones of service, Gonzalez said.

“He died a hero,” Gonzalez said. “He died serving the Harris County community.”

Sheriff’s Office Maj. Mike Lee, who watched the dashboard-camera video of Dhaliwal’s traffic stop, told reporters that the driver-side door of the suspect’s car was open for about two minutes while Dhaliwal talked with him. The conversation did not appear combative, Lee said.

Dhaliwal then shut the car door and began to walk back to his patrol car, Lee said. About three seconds later, Lee said Solis opened the door, got out with a gun in his hand and ran toward Dhaliwal. He shot Dhaliwal in the back of the head, Lee said.

A neighbor reported hearing two gunshots and seeing the shooter run away and leave in a “getaway car,” Lee told reporters. He did not specify whether that car was the stopped vehicle or a different one. Authorities found the suspect inside a business about a quarter-mile from the shooting scene, Lee said.

As a sign of respect, Gonzalez said, sheriff’s office deputies lined the walkway to the medical examiner’s office when Dhaliwal’s body was brought there. Community members later held an impromptu memorial vigil.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said in a statement that he stood with Dhaliwal’s family and the Sikh community.

“He represented the diversity and inclusiveness of our community and everything that is good,” Turner wrote. “Evil you do not win here.”

A Sikh airman petitioned the Air Force to let him wear a turban and beard. He just won.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Dhaliwal’s death was a reminder of the daily risks that law enforcement officers face.

“I thank the officers who bravely responded to apprehend the suspect, and I assure you that the state of Texas is committed to bringing this killer to justice,” Abbott said in a statement.

Simran Jeet Singh, senior fellow at the civil rights group Sikh Coalition, told The Post that only a handful of Sikhs have served in U.S. law enforcement. Most departments’ policies ban headwear, Singh said, and few police forces have allowed Sikhs to wear beards and turbans on patrol.

“To have an office that’s opened itself up to Sikh service and also at the same time to have candidates who are interested and willing to get into this work, it’s been quite challenging,” Singh said.

Sikhism, the world’s fifth-largest religion with about 25 million followers, emphasizes devotion to God, truthfulness, the equality of all people, and the denunciation of superstitions and blind rituals. There are about 500,000 Sikhs in the United States.

Sikhs frequently face discrimination in the United States They have been confused with Muslims — and wrongly associated with terrorism — since the 9/11 attacks. In 2012, a white-supremacist gunman killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

Mass shootings in the U.S. are overwhelmingly committed by men. Experts are examining the place of masculinity in the gun debate. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Erin Patrick O'Connor, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

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