The understated and gentlemanly Gary Kinser was surprised in 1985 when he was selected as the finest police officer in California and second best in the entire nation. But the people who worked with him weren’t.
“He had that unique sixth sense,” said Sal Rosano, who was Santa Rosa’s new police chief when he hired Kinser in 1974. “He would look at a driver, a situation, and just sense that something wasn’t right.”
Kinser died Saturday from pneumonia after a more than a two-year struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 73.
Retired Sonoma County Judge Mark Tansil originally knew Kinser as a police officer and befriended him after Kinser retired from the Santa Rosa Police Department and became a courtroom bailiff.
“He was a cop’s cop in the right sense,” Tansil said.
“He was the epitome of a good public servant. He always did the right thing, and he was good to people.”
The native of Pasadena was in grade school when his parents moved the family to Santa Rosa. Kinser graduated from Montgomery High School in 1963.
Four years later, after the citations generated by his youthful fascination with driving fast torpedoed his ambition to join the California Highway Patrol, he became an officer with the San Mateo Police Department.
He was among the first group of experienced officers hired by Rosano to bolster an understaffed and undertrained Santa Rosa Police Department.
Though Kinser was not the sort to try to impress anyone, his uncanny instincts, his powers of perception and recall, his quiet doggedness and his amiable nature quickly earned him the admiration of his superiors, fellow officers and the community.
“He just had one of those minds,” said Hank Schreeder, who’s now chief of the Santa Rosa Police Department and decades ago worked the streets with Kinser.
“He was old school,” Schreeder said. “He’s one of those guys who you want to put young guys with to show, hey, it can be done.”
Retired Santa Rosa Police Lt. Brad Marsh worked patrol with Kinser and served with him on the department’s first undercover narcotics investigations unit.
“He was one in million; it’s that simple,” Marsh said. “He was one of the most, if not the most respected guy in that Police Department.”
Kinser had been with the Santa Rosa police for 11 years when the American Legion honored him as the state’s “Law Officer of the Year.” The Legion members who honored him told him that he was among 32 officers nominated as national officer of the year, and he came in second.
During his 24 years as a Santa Rosa police officer, Kinser was awarded both the department’s Silver Medal and Medal of Valor.
He was praised for saving his own life and potentially those of others when a career criminal named Wayne Nelson Howe opened fire on him with a pistol during a traffic stop in April 1987.
Kinser was on patrol near the former Kmart store when he grew suspicious upon observing that a man who’d stood alongside a parked 1977 Plymouth with the trunk open glanced at his patrol car, quickly slammed the trunk lid and drove off.