A flag at half-staff, a vase of sunflowers: Healdsburg mourns former Police Chief Kevin Burke
Flags fluttered at half-staff across the city of Healdsburg Thursday, the same position in which they’d been flown a day earlier.
Police officers from elsewhere manned dispatch and patrol, while members of the Healdsburg Police Department gathered to grieve together. And a small collection of flowers, photos and sticky notes grew throughout the day atop folding tables in Healdsburg Plaza.
Small symbols of mourning are dotting the city in the immediate aftermath of retired Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke’s death on Tuesday.
“Rest easy Brother,” read an orange note stuck beside a vase of sunflowers on one of the tables in the city’s downtown square. “Your service showed your humanity,” read another, and scrawled on a third: “We appreciate all you did for Healdsburg.”
Burke, who led the local police agency from 2011 until he retired last year, then initially entered the race for Sonoma County sheriff before abruptly dropping out last month, was found dead in his Healdsburg home Tuesday evening.
Beloved by locals, organizations and others in law enforcement and government alike for his unconventional, community-first approach to public safety, Burke’s death has been met with a deluge of shock and sorrow.
The city erected the tables in Healdsburg Plaza as an informal, organic memorial, “to create a location where people could remember and honor Chief Burke ... and his contributions to the community over the past decade,” said Healdsburg Community Services Director Mark Themig, who stood nearby.
Themig’s eyes scanned across the grass, lush and painted with sunlight, where families were playing and a man strummed his guitar. Individuals out in the unseasonably warm spring day approached the tabletop memorial intermittently.
“People are still a bit in shock. They’re coming into a better understanding of what happened,” said Themig, who viewed Burke as a friend and a mentor. “Obviously Kevin was struggling, and people are questioning how can something like this happen.”
He paused as emotion caught his voice, before adding, “Why didn’t we see it?”
According to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, which is currently investigating the circumstances, Burke’s death appeared to be a suicide.
During his career with the Healdsburg department, Burke led efforts to expand community engagement, especially during the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racism. Under his leadership, Healdsburg became the first police agency in Sonoma County to send social workers to mental health-related emergencies, equip officers with Narcan and ban the carotid restraint, according to his campaign site, which was still active as of Thursday.
He also managed the city’s response to the 2019 Kincade fire, the largest blaze in county history, during which community organizations said he demonstrated his commitment to local marginalized peoples’ safety and well-being.
"He worked closely with Corazón during the wildfires of the last several years to ensure that all people, regardless of their citizenship, were able to access the resources they needed in a crisis. He was committed to building an inclusive police force that reflected the community it served,“ said Holly Fox, director of Advocacy and Community Engagement at Corazón Healdsburg, in a written statement.
“Chief Burke was an ally in our work to build a more just and compassionate society and he will be sorely missed," Fox added.
Themig agreed that Burke made his love for Healdsburg apparent in everyday ways as well.
During city events, Themig said, “he’d stand on the corner of the plaza, and everyone would go and talk to him.” Burke was there to provide security, “but he was also here because he wanted to be part of the community.”
Members of the Healdsburg Police Department came together at City Hall Thursday morning to remember the former chief. The meeting was a chance “to get the team together ... to be together and talk,” said City Manager Jeff Kay.
Leo, the police therapy dog, also attended.
While they debriefed, Kay said, police officers from the Sebastopol and Cloverdale police departments covered the city’s dispatch and patrol duties.
Kevin Kilgore, police chief of Sebastopol, sent two off-duty officers and one dispatcher north to support grieving members of the Healdsburg agency. The personnel were there for about four hours before returning home.
“We want to do all that we can to ... be there for them, to make sure their community continues to feel the support and feels safe with us patrolling their city,” Kilgore said.
The chief grew tearful as he remembered Burke, his colleague — and friend.
Kilgore said they were close, and spoke every few days. He shared that the last several nights since news of Burke’s death spread, he got “absolutely no sleep, and when I do get sleep, it’s going to bed in tears and waking up in tears.
“Kevin was a kind and compassionate leader. He was an amazing human being with a huge heart who would do anything for anyone, and it is a tremendous loss for our profession and a tremendous loss for this county,” Kilgore said.
No formal memorial service for Burke has yet been planned, said Kay, Healdsburg’s city manager, adding that his family is still processing what has happened. He expected possible plans for an appropriate tribute would be announced early next week.
You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or email@example.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.