‘Grateful to have met him, horrified that we lost him’: Healdsburg celebrates life of late former police chief Kevin Burke

At a public celebration of life Friday in Healdsburg, mourners came from across the country to remember Kevin Burke.|

A break in the storm clouds Friday afternoon allowed brilliant white sunlight to wash over Healdsburg Plaza, glinting off police badges and flags flown at half-staff, as Courtney Burke began a eulogy for her uncle at the podium beneath the gazebo.

“My uncle Kevin was extraordinary, brilliant, wise, intuitive and adventurous,” she said through tears. “He showed me what it meant to live a life of conscientious intent.”

She was one of numerous speakers at Friday’s event commemorating Kevin Burke, retired Healdsburg police chief who died unexpectedly in early April.

Mourners numbered in the hundreds by noon, when the funeral Mass concluded at St. John the Baptist’s Church and a public celebration of life began in the city’s downtown square two blocks away.

“Though there are a lot of people here, he touched so many more lives than this,” Kevin Kilgore, chief of the Sebastopol Police Department and Burke’s close friend, told The Press Democrat.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch and Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick were in attendance, as well as Healdsburg city officials like Mayor Ozzy Jimenez, Vice Mayor Ariel Kelley and Burke’s successor, Chief Matt Jenkins. Members of other local agencies — and some as far as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — were also present.

Members of the Healdsburg Police Department filled the pews during Burke’s Mass and the front rows of chairs in the plaza after, with officers from Cloverdale, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Santa Rosa Junior College Police and the Sheriff’s Office filling in for the city’s dispatch and patrol. Many of the officers wore black bands over their badges, a mourning symbol generally used for officers killed in the line of duty.

City officials planned the memorial event on what would have been Burke’s 56th birthday, about a month after he was found dead in his Healdsburg home.

Head of the department for 10 years until his retirement in 2021, Burke’s death sent waves of shock and sorrow through the community, in which he was known as a compassionate and thoughtful leader and a champion of progressive, equitable policing.

Friday’s speakers expounded on Burke’s life and legacy. As they spoke, Burke’s family sat in white folding chairs closest to the stage and wept gently.

“His spirit is best exemplified by his gift for making every person in the community feel visible, cared for and respected,” Jimenez said in his address. “He was revered as a community leader who led us with grace in the most difficult times, from multiple fires, floods, the movements and conversations around race, outreach to our Latino community and our LGBTQIA+ community.”

As chief, Burke was credited for expanding community engagement, especially during the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racism. Under him, Healdsburg began sending social workers to mental health-related emergencies and equipping officers with naloxone, an emergency treatment for narcotics overdoses.

He also managed the city’s response to the 2019 Kincade fire, during which community organizations said he demonstrated his commitment to the safety and well-being of local marginalized people.

“He made everyone feel seen and listened to, and he did it all while wearing his big cowboy hat,” Jimenez added.

David Mickaelian, former Healdsburg city manager, remembered how Burke called him late at night to share his ideas for police deescalation training.

“Really good public servants don’t understand the impact they have on communities,” Mickaelian said. “His community had a great love for him. ... I just hope Kevin can feel that love right now.”

Ross Nemeroff, who worked with Burke during his time with the Los Angeles Police Department, said that Burke had left him guidance for his public eulogy, which included, “Don’t remember him for how he died. Remember him for how he lived.”

Burke died by suicide, authorities said. Police found him when his friend called 911 to report they were having trouble reaching him. He died just weeks after announcing he was withdrawing from the race for Sonoma County sheriff due to health concerns.

Sue Farren, founder of First Responder Resiliency, a local organization aimed at responding to the unique traumas faced by emergency first responders, said following the event, “It’s very bittersweet.”

“It’s a great celebration of life,” she said. “But it’s also an incredible tragedy.”

Family asked for donations to be made in Burke’s honor to Farren’s organization, which is in the early stages of constructing a center to improve local public safety personnel’s mental and physical health.

“That’s what I walk with today: grateful to have met him, horrified that we lost him,” Farren said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

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