Out Deputy Sheriff Dante Austin, 27, was found dead at his desk in the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office last Friday morning. He died by suicide, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Monday.
“Deputy Austin is believed to have suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” Sherrif Jewell Williams said in a statement Friday.
Austin would have been promoted to sergeant July 1, Williams added.
Austin was a well-known activist in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community. He served as the sheriff office’s LGBTQ liaison and on the board of directors of philanthropy group Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, which provides grants to local LGBTQ nonprofits. In 2018, he received the Individual Hero award from the organization in honor of his activism.
Austin and his partner Tito Valdes, an assistant city solicitor, were named the first grand marshal couple in Philadelphia’s 2018 Pride parade. Austin was also a military veteran, having served during the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a discriminatory ban on gay and lesbian service members, according to past PGN coverage.
Austin earned the highest score on the Deputy Sheriff’s exam when he joined the force in November 2013, according to the sheriff’s office. He was the city’s first openly-gay deputy and assumed the role of LGBTQ community liaison in May 2017.
“Dante was a person who believed in and cared about everybody,” Williams said.
Austin was committed to informing Philadelphia’s police force on LGBTQ issues and improving officer relations with the city’s gay community.
“[Out officers] share our knowledge with our fellow officers for them to use to help those in need,” Austin told PGN in a June 2017 interview. “I’m actually working on a resource guide with everything from the significance of pronouns to a list of organizations all on a card they can carry.”
Austin worked as an adjunct instructor of cultural diversity at the Penn State Justice and Safety Institute from 2014-15. He earned a bachelor’s in administration of justice from Rosemont College in 2018 and was pursuing a master of public administration at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.
Amber Hikes, executive director of the LGBT Office of Affairs, wrote on Facebook she was “destroyed and heartbroken” by the news of Austin’s death. In his honor, City Hall’s rainbow flag is being flown at half staff.
“Our beautiful Dante was a powerful force and a loving friend, beloved by our communities and by me personally,” Hikes wrote. “We will be feeling the devastation of this loss in every corner of our work, celebration and love. It is nearly impossible to put into words how much he meant to all of us.”
“Dante worked tirelessly, always, to lift up the most marginalized among us, to secure safety and protection for the most vulnerable, and to serve his community with unparalleled dedication and a warmth and generosity that moved so many of us,” the LGBT Office of Affairs later said in a statement. “Dante’s legacy is one of boldness, bravery, compassion, and an unfailing commitment to a kinder and more just world for all. As we move forward in mourning and honoring our friend and colleague, may we cherish and celebrate the ways he changed us, improved our city and protected and saved lives.”
The William Way LGBT Community Center held a grief support gathering and vigil for Austin Friday afternoon, followed by peer counseling sessions for community members. Dozens attended the gathering, including Hikes and Councilman Derek Green. Some took to a podium to speak about their memories with Austin.
Chris Bartlett, executive director of William Way, said Austin was a “tremendous leader.”
“He was a transformative character,” he said. “Not just in what he did, but in who he was as a person. …The love and the joy and the passion that he exhibited as a person and as a human being was so powerful.”
Terrell Green met Austin in 2005 while the two attended Central High School. Austin was his best friend and “changed [his] life,” Green said, noting Austin helped him through his father’s death.
“[Austin] was one of the best people I have ever met in my life. …[He was] such a light and he was always pushing me to be a better person,” Green added.
Philadelphia is a better city because of Austin, said Valdes, who was Austin’s partner for almost three years.
“I didn’t know that I didn’t know what love is until I met him,” Valdes added. “I didn’t learn what love is just through the way he treated me as his partner, but…through the way he interacted with nieces and nephews, his mom and the community.”
The “tremendous loss” in Austin’s death “colors” the upcoming Pride weekend, said Michael Grosberg, who served on the board of Delaware Valley Legacy Fund for eight years — two alongside Austin.
“It certainly gives this weekend a blasé lull,” Grosberg said. “We look at Pride as a celebration, but it reminds us that just 50 years ago, it did start as a riot.
For Valdes, the best way to uphold Austin’s legacy is to remember how much he “despised injustice.”
“We move on from this by spreading awareness about mental health, ending the stigma,” Valdes told PGN. “Particularly in certain professions like law enforcement.”
Austin’s funeral is scheduled for noon Saturday at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany on 13th Street near Pine. Those who knew him are welcome from 9-11 a.m.
Photo: Dante Austin at the 2018 Delaware Valley Legacy Fund HEROES Awards Brunch, where he won the Individual Hero award.
Posted: 6/7/19 12:54 p.m.
Updated: 6/7/19 6:14 p.m.
Updated: 6/13/19 1:31 p.m.