A Texas sheriff’s deputy and observant Sikh who made national headlines after being granted permission to wear his turban and beard while in uniform was fatally shot Friday during a routine traffic stop.
Sandeep Dhaliwal pulled over a car just before 12:30 p.m. and had what appeared to be a peaceful interaction with the driver, according to Maj. Mike Lee of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, who addressed the shooting in a press conference.
In a review of the dash cam footage, Lee said that, at first, “it looked to just be conversational ― there was no combat, no arguing, just looked like a routine traffic stop that we conduct every day.”
However, as Dhaliwal walked back to his patrol car, the civilian ― who has since been identified as 47-year-old Robert Solis ― pulled out a gun within seconds, and “ran up from behind and basically ambushed” him, shooting him in the back of the head, Lee said.
Two houses away from the scene, a woman doing yard work outside heard two shots fired, and spotted Solis fleeing the scene. She then checked on Dhaliwal and called 911, prompting officers from multiple precincts to begin searching for the gunman.
Police tracked Solis down at a business less than a quarter mile away from the scene.
“A deputy observed that he looked a little nervous and put him in custody,” Lee said. “And that did turn out to be our shooter.”
Police have also taken a woman into custody who was a passenger in Solis’ car.
Solis has been charged with capital murder. There was also an active parole violation warrant out against him for aggravated assault, dating back to January 2017, according to Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.
Dhaliwal’s death has been deeply felt in his community where those who knew him have begun sharing tributes on social media. One Harris County resident who sent a video to the sheriff’s office of Dhaliwal playing with her deaf son recalled that he “laughed and joked with all of us, and left a bright impression” on the boy.
“My heart is with his family, with my friend Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, with his fellow officers in Harris County and across the country who are keeping our communities safe tonight,” O’Rourke tweeted.
Dhaliwal joined the force 10 years ago and received widespread attention in 2015 when he became the first Texan to wear his articles of faith while on duty, after the sheriff’s department adjusted its regulations. Though dress codes in law enforcement have been shifting to allow Sikhs the freedom of religious expression, change has been slow. (Within the military, accommodations remain rare.) For that reason, Dhaliwal was recognized for breaking new ground.
Sim Singh, senior manager of policy and advocacy at the Sikh Coalition, an anti-hate group advocating for civil liberties, praised Dhaliwal in a statement sent to HuffPost Saturday.
“Our hearts and prayers are with Lt. Dhaliwal’s family in light of this tragic news,” Singh said. “He embodied the Sikh value of service and was clearly a role model for the Houston community and a trailblazer for Sikh Americans. While there is no established motive for his murder at this time, we have every confidence that the Harris County Sheriff’s Office will conduct a thorough investigation and provide more information soon.”
The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund also spoke out about Dhaliwal’s death, calling it shocking and saddening.
“He was a pioneer for the Sikh community and will always be remembered,” the organization tweeted. “Our condolences and prayers go to his family and friends.”