Thomas Gilbert Kalt
Philadelphia Police Department
End of Watch:
January 6, 1999
A gay police officer's suicide leaves activists and city officials wondering what went wrong
A gentle snow was falling the afternoon of January 6 as 26-year-old Thomas Gilbert Kalt Jr. walked alone to a frozen slope in Philadelphia's Independence National Historic Park, just a few blocks from the Liberty Bell. Kalt, known to his friends as Gilbert, was not wearing the uniform of the Philadelphia Police Department, from which he had resigned just two days earlier. But he was still carrying his unreturned badge.
And his nine-millimeter pistol.
With a single shot to his right temple, Kalt ended his life and brought to a close the short history of Philadelphia's first openly gay police recruit. After graduating from the police academy December 15, Kalt had served on the force for less than three weeks.
In the aftermath of his death, close friends were still struggling to identify the demons that cut short the life of such an outwardly gregarious and spirited man. He was known among gay Philadelphians for his sense of humor--he saved the first doughnut he was served on the job as a keepsake for his best friend--and his volunteerism, which included being an usher at the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, a regular at the fund-raising Gay Bingo, and a volunteer for the AIDS Fund, the organization that sponsors the Philadelphia AIDS Walk. The two handwritten suicide notes Kalt left--one to his family, one to a close friend--offered little evidence of what might have plagued him. Theories focused primarily on his recent breakup with his boyfriend. Whatever may have caused his death, no one was pointing the finger at harassment or homophobia within the police department. On the contrary, Kalt's friends as well as local gay and lesbian leaders have gone out of their way to emphasize Kalt's happiness with the force.
"He never had anything but a good word to say about the [police] department," says Jennifer Leafy, volunteer coordinator at the AIDS Fund. Leafy spoke with Kalt daily, including a ten-minute phone conversation the night before he killed himself. "He considered the police like another family."
Adds Mark Singer, who manages the Gay Bingo fund-raiser, where Kalt received a standing ovation after his graduation from the police academy: "Every step of the way I asked him if he was getting any harassment on the force. There was never a single exception to his answer: No." Even Andrew Park, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, who called for a full police investigation into Kalt's death, concedes, "I'm convinced his experience [with the Philadelphia police] was not one of harassment.'
Kalt's dedication to the force and the overwhelming support the police department is receiving from gays and lesbians in the wake of his death are remarkable in a city that has only one other out officer--a lesbian--and that has long been plagued by animosity, including numerous physical confrontations between police and gay residents.
It underscores the important symbol Kalt had become to both the police department and gay citizens. To the police department--led by a new commissioner, John Timoney, who had been a liaison between police and gays in New York City--Kalt was tangible evidence of making good on a promise. In the past few years the police had been recruiting among Philadelphia's gays by placing posters and applications in gay and lesbian businesses, running ads in the gay papers, and setting up an information table each week at the gay and lesbian community center. Kalt had picked up his application from Giovanni's Room, a gay and lesbian bookstore, and attended at least one recruiting session at the community center.
"It's fair to say the police played up Gilbert as a way to show they were reaching out to gays in the right way," says Eric Wichner, a friend of Kalt's and a former executive director of the AIDS Fund. Some friends even wonder if the police department overlooked possible signs of psychological dysfunction to shepherd Kalt through the academy. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one friend recalls Kalt's saying he was worried about passing the psychological test required by the academy. "Looking back now, I can't help but have doubts," the friend says.
To gays and lesbians, Kalt was a sign of change, a symbol of progress, a marker that years of street protest and political lobbying had finally resulted in placing one of their own on a force that had once raided gay bars and bashed gay men. In December alone Kalt twice made the front page of the Philadelphia Gay News.
Friends say Kalt was aware that both sides would be watching closely as he graduated from the academy and took up his assignment in northeast Philadelphia. But he played down his sexuality and its importance to him as a cop. "His biggest fear was that he would be known as the Gay Cop, with capital letters," says Chip Capelli, a close friend. "He just wanted to be Gilbert the cop. He was thrust into being a role model. He never really wanted that."
How the reluctant pioneer's suicide will affect relationships between the city and subsequent recruits is still uncertain. Some gays wonder if it will hamper efforts to recruit gay men and lesbians. "It will probably make it harder to put gays and lesbians on the force," Park says. He and other gay leaders worry that the public as well as antigay elements within the police department may see Kalt's death as a sign that gay men and lesbians are unstable and unqualified for police duty. "This is about the personal tragedy of one man, not whether or not gays and lesbians are fit to serve," Park says.
Sgt. Edgar Rodriguez, president of the Gay Officers' Action League of New York, says Kalt's death could be an obstacle to police departments around the country that are just starting to reach out to gay men and lesbians. "Some police departments could misread this and reach a stereotype about gay and lesbian officers," he says. And that could affect recruiting, making it harder for gays and lesbians to be accepted. "We're always concerned about how psychological units of police departments handle gay and lesbian members," Rodriguez says.
There is little doubt that the glare of attention on Kalt's death will make it even harder for the next openly gay or lesbian recruit to the Philadelphia Police Department. But both the police and gay activists appear eager to keep their new-found cooperation alive.
"Gil was the product of a relationship that never existed here before between the cops and the community," Park says. "Both sides are determined not to let this tragedy break that up."
Dahir is an editorial writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.