In life, Deputy Sheriff Danté M. Austin’s mission was to bring people together in dignity and love.
That mission continued Saturday in spite of his death, as legions of family and friends, law enforcement brothers and sisters from near and far, and members of faith and community groups — LGBTQ and not — joined to celebrate and mourn a special young man who took his own life June 7.
Loved ones said they still didn’t know what made Austin, 27, the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office’s first openly gay member, end his life at his desk in the office.
But from the smiling face in the seemingly countless photographs in the chapel of the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany to the memories shared by those who knew him and the respect for his role as a leader, people couldn’t seem to help but rejoice in his singular life.
“This was a man who built bridges,” the Rev. Rodger Broadley said in his homily.
In addition to members of the Sheriff’s Office and the Police Department, those in the pews included many law enforcement officers from outside the region, including New York City, New Jersey, and as far as Chicago; representatives of the gay community; and members of the Army, of which Austin was a veteran with the National Guard.
“He gave us all the courage to be ourselves,” eulogized Amber Hikes, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs.
Austin was named the Sheriff’s Office’s first LGBTQ community liaison, and he earned the highest score on the deputy sheriff’s exam when he was hired in 2013. Shortly before his death, he talked about a future run for sheriff. In the chapel where his body lay before the service, there were certificates of his many honors and notations of his numerous good works, including aiding Puerto Rican hurricane victims.
On Saturday, his family was presented with a Sheriff’s Office citation to Austin — “truly one of our rising stars” — as a “consummate professional, role model, motivator, trainer, and superior leader among his fellow officers.”
He was also a gentle soul, adored by his nieces, nephews, and younger cousins. He was still mourning the death last month of his infant goddaughter, Sienna Rae. On Saturday, a family member, trying to console a fellow mourner, said that Austin was “with our baby Si Si now, taking care of her.”
Samiyah Connell, 19, a cousin, held Henry, a therapy dog brought by Attitudes in Reverse, a nonprofit run by Tricia and Kurt Baker, a Princeton couple who lost their son to suicide 10 years ago.
“It’s been the longest week of my life,” Connell said.
To fellow officers, many of whom donned rainbow ribbons Saturday, Austin was a friend and an inspiration.
“Danté was a giant — a force,” said Detective Brian Downey, president of the New York City chapter of the Gay Officers Action League, one of the many law enforcers who came from beyond Philadelphia to pay their respects.
So important was Austin to so many in law enforcement, Downey said, “we went out lights and sirens to tell people in person” when colleagues in the New York City chapter learned of his death.
“He led his life by example,” said Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.
Before the service, Amber Kee, one of Austin’s siblings, spoke of her brother’s hopes for all.
“He wanted everyone to be who they needed to be when they were a child,” Kee said.
Kee, like others, said she did not know why Austin chose to end his life. He was soon due for a promotion and working toward a graduate degree in public administration. He was respected in law enforcement and the LGBTQ community. The day he died, he had even gone shopping for himself, she said.
“This was not a planned thing,” Kee said. Austin, however, had battled depression, for which he had undergone counseling, she said.
If her brother could leave a last message to others who still struggle, Kee said, she believes he would tell them “to talk to someone, to get help, not to be alone.”
His legacy, she said, will live on.
“They say sometimes that the great ones, they serve their purpose, and they leave,” the sister said.
“Danté was magic.”