Mourn Houston’s Sikh deputy but celebrate his hopeful legacy
For many of us, hateful words and acts of prejudice from another person are where the conversation ends.
For Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal, they are where the conversation began.
Back in 2008, when a Sikh family accused Harris County deputies of handcuffing them, roughing them up and even likening them to terrorists while responding to the family's 911 call about a burglary, then-Sheriff-elect Adrian Garcia seized on the teachable moment.
He met with members of the Sikh community, pledging diversity training when he took over as sheriff, but also asking people of the Sikh faith to consider serving in law enforcement.
Dhaliwal answered the call. Sikhism, the world's fifth largest religion, is a monotheistic faith centered around equality, service and justice — ideals Dhaliwal believed were vital to police service. He worked his way up from detention officer to deputy, even earning a bit of celebrity in 2015 after persuading the sheriff's department to make religious accommodations in its dress code that allowed him to grow out his beard and wear a Sikh turban, among the articles of faith kept by men and women that distinguish observant Sikhs.
Locally and nationally, he became a "walking lesson in tolerance and understanding," as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called him. A "trailblazer" and a "hero," as Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said.
Not everyone agreed with the dress code change, though. Alan Bernstein, who handled communications for the agency at the time, said half the emails from the public seemed supportive and the other half were opposed. One went so far as to say he'd never "pull over for that terrorist," Bernstein recalls.
The danger, the controversy, the constant looks of suspicion and curiosity didn't stop Dhaliwal. Indeed, they seemed part of what inspired his mission to educate people about the Sikh faith as he went about his law enforcement duties.
"When people don't understand each other, that's when some of the prejudice and bias comes in. I think he invited those questions because he wanted people to understand," said Dena Marks, senior associate director of the Southwest Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League in Houston. "Sometimes, some of us suffer from ignorance. It's always better to educate and create understanding than to push people away when you feel they're in need of some understanding."
Of course, that's not easy. It requires superhuman patience and a lot of empathy. Dhaliwal had them in abundance - part of the reason he was so special, so beloved, and now, so mournfully missed.
Dhaliwal, a 42-year-old married father of three, was shot to death Friday during a routine traffic stop, allegedly ambush-style by a man later discovered to be a felon with a lengthy criminal record.
People across the area have poured their sorrow into social media posts full of stories, pictures and videos of the deputy who called most everyone friend.
One story tells of Dhaliwal encouraging a 4-year-old boy who wanted to become a police officer to "follow his dreams." A video shows the deputy playfully letting a young deaf boy handcuff him at a restaurant. Another shows him after Hurricane Harvey coordinating a couple dozen truckloads of donations from the Sikh community for first-responders and Houston schoolchildren.
Public funeral services are scheduled for Wednesday morning at the Berry Center in Cypress, with a religious ceremony planned for 10:30 a.m. and a law enforcement memorial at 11:30 a.m.
As much as Dhaliwal's tragic death is a reminder of the dangers law enforcement officers face daily to keep us safe, it's also a reminder of Dhaliwal's hopeful legacy.
He was the embodiment of the values that bind us here in Houston, the most ethnically diverse city in the country. Tolerance. Acceptance. Understanding.
A good man is gone from this world, but his lessons live on in those whose lives he touched and those who know his story.