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Kevin Burke, former Healdsburg police chief, announces run for Sonoma County Sheriff

Kevin Burke, who retired as Healdsburg’s police chief last year after a decade leading that department, is running for Sonoma County Sheriff, joining a growing pool of candidates in the race to lead the county’s largest law enforcement agency.

Burke, 55, announced his candidacy Monday in a news release that touted his leadership during the 2019 Kincade fire and cited endorsements from local elected leaders including District Attorney Jill Ravitch, Healdsburg Mayor Ozzy Jimenez and Healdsburg Vice Mayor Ariel Kelley.

Burke’s campaign website lists additional endorsements from Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers, Santa Rosa Councilwoman Victoria Fleming and Healdsburg Councilwoman Evelyn Mitchell.

“I care about public safety in Sonoma County, I’m passionate about it,” Burke said in a Press Democrat interview. “I think the voters of Sonoma County want a sheriff who is experienced at bringing us together.”

Burke served as Healdsburg’s chief of police from 2011 to 2021, a tenure that included navigating the department through floods that swept through the city in December 2014 and the 2019 Kincade fire, which threatened the city’s eastern flank and forced the evacuation of its 11,000 residents — and more than 190,000 countywide.

“During the Kincade fire, Chief Burke worked day and night to keep our community safe,” Kelley said in the release. “Chief Burke’s leadership was always collaborative, and his role in the multiagency evacuation was no different.”

In 2020, the police department was swept up in local discussions about racial justice and police reform, mirroring the nationwide push to address discrimination and violence by law enforcement.

Those local conversations and protests in Healdsburg resulted in the resignation of then-Healdsburg Mayor Leah Gold amid protests from Black Lives Matter advocates and allies over her handling of calls for a greater focus on racial justice in Healdsburg.

Burke, at the time, said the pressure prompted a reevaluation of how the department went about its work, and his proposal to bring in a bilingual, licensed clinical social worker to help officers with calls involving people with drug and mental health issues.

“My takeaway (from 2020) is that the public wants transparency from law enforcement, they want accountability, they want a leader that has those values,” Burke said Monday.

He added that, if elected, he would seek to build relationships with members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, the broader community and the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, the agency that oversees internal Sheriff’s Office investigations and citizen complaints.

“I think the next sheriff needs to be willing to work with IOLERO and ensure that the will of the voters through Measure P is honored,” Burke said.

Sheriff Mark Essick, who is not seeking a second term, and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association opposed Measure P, the 2020 ballot initiative that boosted IOLERO’s budget and sought to expand its investigative powers.

Before becoming Healdsburg’s police chief, Burke worked as police chief in Lakeport for four years and spent a decade at the Los Angeles Police Department, where he rose to the rank of sergeant. Before becoming a police officer, Burke also spent some years working as a prosecutor at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Whittier College, a law degree from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in public safety management from Johns Hopkins University.

If elected, Burke would be the county’s first openly gay sheriff, which while groundbreaking, does not form the basis of his first run for elected office, he said.

“Being gay in law enforcement is a part of my personal story and I’m proud of who I am,” Burke said. “But that’s definitely not what the campaign is about.”

He said his platform will highlight his experience leading police departments and what that means for how he would approach the job of sheriff, leading an agency with more than 620 employees, including about 450 sworn deputies, and a budget of $211 million.

“My vision is to take that organization to the next level,” Burke said. “I think there are some great men and women working there and I think it has the potential to be a regional leader in terms of best practices and I would like to create a culture of it being a learning organization.”

Burke floated the idea of creating a sheriff’s advisory committee made up of representatives across the community to provide insight about community needs.

Burke joins Assistant Sheriff Eddie Engram, retired Sonoma County Sheriff’s Capt. Dave Edmonds and retired San Francisco police sergeant Carl Tennenbaum in the the race for the sheriff’s post.

In September 2021, Essick announced he would not run for reelection, citing the strain his 28 years on the force put on him and his relationships with his family.

If no candidate in the June 7 primary wins more than 50% of the vote, the contest will proceed to a runoff between the two top vote-getters.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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