Philadelphia Deputy Sheriff Dante Austin, a leader in Philadelphia’s gay community, got together with a few close friends for lunch Thursday at a Center City sports bar to discuss plans for him possibly to run for sheriff in four years.
“He was in high spirits,” said Terrell Green, a longtime close friend. “I was going to be his campaign manager.”
That evening, Austin and Green were among hundreds who gathered in LOVE Park for the raising of a rainbow flag marking June as Gay Pride Month, this weekend’s annual Philly Pride Weekend, and Sunday’s annual Pride Parade, for which he and his former partner were last year’s Grand Marshal Couple.
But hours later, the excitement had turned to tragedy. About 6:45 a.m. Friday, Austin’s body was found at his desk in the Sheriff’s Office at 100 S. Broad St. Pending Medical Examiner’s Office confirmation, authorities said he shot himself in the head.
Austin, 27, an Army veteran who was working in the Civil Enforcement Unit, was scheduled to be promoted to sergeant on July 1, Sheriff Jewell Williams said.
“This is a tragedy for the Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Austin’s family, and the local LGBTQ community,” Williams said. “Dante was a person who believed in and cared about everybody. He had the highest score on the deputy sheriff’s exam when he was hired in November 2013. He was our first openly gay deputy sheriff, and we promoted him to become our first LGBTQ community liaison in May 2017.”
Friends were at a loss to make sense of the situation.
“We had a lot of plans,” said Green, 29, who knew Austin since their days at Central High School, from which Austin graduated in 2009. “To get this news was completely jarring.”
“I don’t know where to go. My grieving process will begin once I accept it fully, which I have not done yet,” Austin’s former partner, Robert “Tito” Valdez, said at a vigil attended by about 100 people in his memory Friday at the William Way LGBT Community Center.
Valdez, 26, an assistant city solicitor, said Austin should be remembered as “someone who despised bigotry, who despised inequality, and who fought for change from within.”
The sheriff said the office closed at noon out of respect for Austin, and was coordinating with the Managing Director’s Office to provide grief counseling for employees.
In addition, the Mayor’s Office said in a statement that the rainbow flag at City Hall would be lowered to half-staff in Austin’s memory.
Amber Hikes, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, said Austin had been her “inside man” on the workings of city departments, especially law enforcement.
“As a queer person of color, that was invaluable to me,” said Hikes. She said Austin had phoned her at 12:30 a.m. Friday, but she did not say what they talked about.
District Attorney Larry Krasner, who said he did not know Austin, stopped by the vigil and afterward lamented Austin’s death. “It’s heartbreaking for a lot of us,” Krasner said. “Obviously, he was a very capable, bright, social young man who everyone loved. As part of our duties, we have to carefully work with the Philadelphia Police Department and investigate any officer-involved shooting, which this is.”
Austin’s death on the eve of Pride Weekend struck a nerve throughout the gay community.
Kelly Burkhardt, a filmmaker and member of the Police Department’s LGBTQ advisory board, said at the vigil: “We all care so deeply about each other in this community, yet we don’t check in with each other.”
“Dante was a bighearted, community-oriented, dedicated leader who was a pioneer in bringing LGBT sensitivity to the Sheriff’s Office,” said Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way center. “He’s part of a generation of young LGBT leaders of color who are taking the reins from my generation. He’s an irreplaceable loss. We’ll aim to have a Pride Weekend that is worthy of his legacy, but it will be difficult.”
According to the American Public Health Association, gay and bisexual men attempt suicide at four times the rate of straight men — a reality lamented by Reginald T. Shuford, executive director of ACLU of Pennsylvania, on Friday.
“Dante’s passing is a sad reminder that LGBTQ people have higher rates of suicide attempts and suicide ideation,” said Shuford, who knew Austin. “It’s a symptom of a society that, while improving, mistreats members of the LGBTQ community in unfair and dehumanizing ways.”
State Rep. Brian Sims (D., Phila.), the first openly gay person elected to the state legislature, said people should not dwell on how Austin died but should remember him for all he contributed to the city, especially the LGBT community.
“Dante is an advocate that worked with virtually every LGBT organization and LBGT activist that I know in the city,” said Sims, himself a gay activist. “He was one of those people who lifted up every room he ever stepped foot in.”
Austin was a board member of the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund (DVLF), a grant provider to LGBTQ nonprofit organizations. Nate Osburn, fund board secretary — who said Austin seemed upbeat when he saw him Thursday night — called him “just a wonderful human being.”
Joe Blake, who retired as the Sheriff’s Office’s communications chief in 2017, said Austin was “just an all-around nice guy, very active in his community and very active in veteran affairs. He was just everywhere, just committed to the community at every level.”
Each year as Christmas neared, Blake said, Austin was one of the first Sheriff’s Office employees to volunteer to pass out toys and other gifts to children. “He would say, ‘Where do you need me and what time do you need me?’”
Austin was raised by his mother in Northeast Philadelphia, friends said. Before joining the Sheriff’s Office, he served in the Military Intelligence Corps of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He had a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Rosemont College and was pursuing a master’s in public administration at West Chester University.
Staff writer Julie Shaw contributed to this article.