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Slain Sikh deputy remembered as a pioneer and role model ‘with a heart of gold’

Harris County Sheriff

Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal became a sheriff’s deputy so he could be a bridge between his Sikh faith community and those who would protect it in the Houston area.

At his funeral Wednesday, the man who effectively recruited him said he was a model for all: A man who lived to serve anyone regardless of background or creed.

Thousands gathered Wednesday to honor Dhaliwal, a 42-year-old Harris County sheriff’s deputy who was shot and killed Friday during a traffic stop, in a public funeral at the Berry Center arena outside Houston.

Speakers saluted Dhaliwal as a pioneer — he was the first Sikh deputy for the nation’s third-largest sheriff’s department. He later drew national attention in 2015 when the sheriff’s department allowed him to wear a turban and beard in uniform.

But they also honored him as a man who raised resources for hurricane victims, cheerfully engaged community members and gave up business pursuits for lower-paid life as a deputy.

“Sandeep was here to teach us. He was here to guide us,” said Adrian Garcia, the current county commissioner and former sheriff who a decade ago asked Sikhs to join the department — a call that Dhaliwal answered.

“He was here to help us understand that if we just approach each other on a level of decency, so much good can come from it.”

In one of the funeral’s more touching moments, an emotional Garcia addressed Dhaliwal’s father, calling him “Baba,” a term of endearment for fathers in South Asian culture.

“Baba, you raised a good man. You raised him with a heart of gold,” Garcia said. “It is unfair that a father should outlive his son … but know that (with) this stadium and all those around the world that are watching us, that this celebration of life is fit for a king.”

Dhaliwal was remembered as a light to others

Dhaliwal’s volunteerism and engagement with community members made him popular around Houston, and his death has resonated, prompting people to flood the internet with photos and videos of him and visit impromptu memorials ahead of the funeral.

The funeral was essentially two services in one: The first half focusing on Dhaliwal’s faith, and the second led by the sheriff’s department, featuring speeches from dignitaries.

Both emphasized a man who lived his faith.

The event started with kirtan — Sikh devotional hymns played on Indian classical instruments, including the harmonium and the tabla.

“The memory of his prolific service to mankind will be etched in our hearts and minds forever,” Hardam Singh Azad, the chairman of the board at the Sikh National Center, said at the funeral.

The Sikh National Center is the Houston gurdwara, or place of worship, that Dhaliwal attended.

Speakers also honored Dhaliwal for pushing the department to allow him to wear the dastaar and his beard, markers of his faith.

One was Simratpal Singh, who as a US Army captain in 2016 became the first active duty soldier to seek and receive accommodation to wear the turban and beard while serving.

“Our dream is that a Sikh like Sandeep, with his unrelenting love of service, should they choose to don the uniform of this nation, that individual will not have to fight the fight that Sandeep fought to serve with his turban and his beard,” Singh, in uniform, said Wednesday.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez hailed Dhaliwal has a hero who “brought the entire community together … in a way that only Sandeep can do.”

“People followed Sandeep Dhaliwal because he led from the heart,” Gonzalez told reporters before the service. “And I hope that that’s something that we can impart. … He taught us about tolerance, he taught us about acceptance, he taught us about love, he taught us how to be a visionary.”

US Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Dhaliwal’s surviving relatives, including his three young children, his wife and his father, that the community was with them.

Speaking to the children specifically, he added: “We are grateful to your father’s service, his sacrifice, and his legacy.”

His life was marked by service

Dhaliwal operated trucking and pizza businesses in young adulthood. But he changed careers after a well-publicized 2008 incident in which Harris County sheriff’s deputies incorrectly treated a Sikh family that reported a burglary as criminals, after seeing one member with a ceremonial sword that is a Sikh article of faith.

Garcia, then the sheriff-elect, asked local Sikhs to join the department. Dhaliwal answered the call, joining as a detention officer in 2009, and eventually moved his way up to deputy.

Dhaliwal’s desire to help people marked his life inside and outside the department, those who knew him say.

Dhaliwal helped coordinate disaster relief efforts after 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which devastated parts of the Houston area, and traveled to Puerto Rico to help after Hurricane Maria.

He helped at-risk youth in Houston, Gurvinder Singh, international director of Sikh aid programs for United Sikhs, said before the funeral.

Even when the deputy was on vacation, Dhaliwal would reach out to the United Sikhs humanitarian organization and ask what programs they were working on in the area so he could help, Singh said.

His loss is felt in Houston and around the world

Ahead of the funeral, mourners in a hall outside the arena signed a banner dedicated to the fallen deputy.

“Even though I never met you, I know your story. Wish I could meet you face to face. R.I.P. Brother,” read one message, signed “P.O. Singh (NYPD).”

James Arrendell, a former colleague of Dhaliwal’s in the sheriff’s department, was there with his wife to pay their respects.

“Every memory is a favorite. Like (the speakers) said, every day he always came in, always smiled,” Arrendell said. “Doesn’t matter if I was in a bad mood or if somebody else was in a bad mood.”

“He would come talk to you and cheer you up, let you know everything was going to be okay.

Dhaliwal was to be cremated at a funeral home later Wednesday afternoon, according to Sikh tradition. The cremation service was for family and members of the sheriff’s office.

Final prayers — open to the public — were to be said afterward at the Sikh National Center.

From Monday to Wednesday, the Sikh National Center also held an Akhand Path, a nonstop front-to-back reading of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.

Dhaliwal’s loss is being felt both at home in Houston and in communities around the world.

A local Chick-fil-A restaurant honored Dhaliwal with a missing man table, a memorial typically found in military dining facilities in memory of fallen service members.

Communities in New York, New Jersey and even Punjab, India, where Dhaliwal was originally from, held vigils in his memory, according to United Sikhs. Congregations in gurdwaras as far away as Melbourne, Australia, honored Dhaliwal in their Ardas, a formal Sikh prayer that asks God for strength.

A GoFundMe campaign set up to help his family cover unforeseen expenses and help pay for his three children’s education raised more than $570,000 as of Wednesday morning. United Sikhs set up its own GoFundMe campaign, as well as a Facebook fundraiser for the family.

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