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Philadelphia LEO found dead at desk

The sheriff’s deputy was a leader in the city’s gay community, and a state legislator said he “lifted up every room he ever stepped foot in”

By Mensah M. Dean
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — A Philadelphia sheriff’s deputy who was a leader in the city’s gay community, and who a state legislator said “lifted up every room he ever stepped foot in,” was found dead at his desk in his Center City office Friday morning.

Deputy Sheriff Dante Austin, 27, was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the office headquarters at 100 South Broad St., Sheriff Jewell Williams said.

Police and medics raced to the building at 6:45 a.m. Friday, police said. Williams confirmed Austin’s death shortly after noon.

Austin, a U.S. Army veteran who was working in the Civil Enforcement Unit, was scheduled to be promoted to sergeant in the Sheriff’s Office on July 1, 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.”

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 Commission on LGBT Affairs said in a statement that the rainbow flag at City Hall would be lowered to half-staff in Austin’s memory.

“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 commission said.

“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.”

Last June, Austin and his partner, Robert “Tito” Valdez, an assistant city solicitor, were chosen as the first Grand Marshal Couple in the Philly Pride Parade. Austin also was a board member of the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, (DVLF), a grant provider to LGBTQ nonprofit organizations.

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 the ACLU Pennsylvania in an interview 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. It’s imperative that we care for ourselves and for each other.”

Others who knew Austin were quick to praise him Friday.

State Rep. Brian Sims (D., Phila.), the first openly gay person elected to the state legislature, said in an interview Friday that people should not dwell on how Austin died but instead 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’s pushed for better training in the Sheriff’s Office and was a champion of LGBT equality. He was one of those people who lifted up every room he ever stepped foot in. This is one of those losses that’s going to be felt for a very long time.”

Nate Osburn, DVLF board secretary — who said Austin seemed upbeat when he saw him Thursday night — called him “just a wonderful human being and was passionate about building bridges in the community. There was a warmth about him and you felt that warmth whenever you were around him.”

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 always 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?’ That was his spirit. He was one of the most popular guys there.”

“Dante was a big-hearted, 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 LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St., which planned a gathering in Austin’s memory at 3 p.m. Friday.

“He’s part of a generation of young LGBT leaders of color who are taking the reins from my generation,” Bartlett said. “He’s an irreplaceable loss. We’ll aim to have a Pride Weekend that is worthy of his legacy, but it will be difficult.” The city’s annual Pride Parade will be held Sunday.

As the Sheriff Office’s LGBT liaison, Austin took a leadership role in developing training to educate officers on LGBT issues, as well as developing policies and procedures to better serve the LGBT community. He was the first openly gay officer to hold such a post in Pennsylvania.

Before joining the Sheriff’s Office, he served in the Military Intelligence Corps of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from Rosemont College and was pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree at West Chester University.

©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer