Philadelphia, PA – Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office (PSO) Deputy Dante Austin was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on Friday morning.
The 27-year-old deputy’s body was found at his desk inside the PSO building at approximately 6:45 a.m., the Philly Voice reported.
Deputy Austin served as the department’s LGBTQ liaison, and was also a well-known member of the city’s gay community.
"This is a tragedy for the Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Austin's family and the local LGBTQ community," Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams told the Philly Voice. "Dante was a person who believed in and cared about everybody."
He and his former partner, Family Court Assistant City Solicitor Robert “Tito” Valdez, were the first Grand Marshall Couple in the city’s Pride Parade in 2018, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Prior to his law enforcement career, Deputy Austin served in the military intelligence corps of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
He was hired by PSO in November of 2013, and was scheduled to be promoted to the rank of sergeant on July 1, according to the Philly Voice.
He was the agency’s first openly gay deputy, and was named as the PSO’s first LGBTQ community liaison in 2017.
“Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community lost one of our best & brightest last night!” Representative Brian Sims tweeted on Friday. “Dante Austin was one of the strongest & kindest champions for equality I’ve ever met. He lifted up everyone he touched. He supported everyone who needed him. He cared deeply & loved loudly.”
Sims noted that Deputy Austin was involved with “virtually every LGBT organization” in Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Deputy Austin’s death came just one day before the city’s weekend of Philly Pride events, according to WCAU.
On Thursday, he’d gathered with friends at a local sports bar to discuss the possibility of him running for the position of sheriff in four years, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“He was in high spirits,” said his friend, Terrell Green. “I was going to be his campaign manager.”
Deputy Austin was also working towards a master’s degree in public administration at the time of his death, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Valdez said he has not accepted the fact that his former partner is gone.
“I don’t know where to go,” he said. “My grieving process will begin once I accept it fully, which I have not done yet.”
Valdez said his greatest hope is that the city remembers Deputy Austin as “someone who despised bigotry, who despised inequality, and who fought for change from within.”
Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs Executive Director Amber Hikes said she was “destroyed and heartbroken” to learn of the deputy’s death, according to the Philly Voice.
“Our beautiful Dante was a powerful force and a loving friend, beloved by our communities and by me personally,” Hikes said. “We will be feeling the devastation of this loss in every corner of our work, celebration, and love.”
A rainbow flag was flown at half-staff outside Philadelphia City Hall in Deputy Austin’s honor on Friday, CNN reported.
"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 Mayor's Commission on LGBT Affairs 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,” the commission’s statement continued. “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."
William Way Executive Director Chris Bartlett said that Deputy Austin was a “dedicated leader” who was also a “pioneer in bringing LGBT sensitivity to the Sheriff’s Office,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“He’s an irreplaceable loss,” Bartlett added.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office Deputy Dante Austin, both blood and blue. Thank you for your service.
Rest easy, hero. We’ll hold the line from here.