Bill Habkirk, a former CHP officer who helped transform the Santa Rosa Police Department, dies at 79

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Whenever Sal Rosano is credited with making a modern, professional law-enforcement agency of the Santa Rosa Police Department, the retired chief will likely say he had indispensable help — certainly that of Bill Habkirk.

“I couldn’t have done it without Bill,” said Rosano, who in the early 1970s initiated the transformation of Santa Rosa’s small-town, informally regulated police force.

“He was my right-hand man,” Rosano said of Habkirk, whose work as a CHP officer had been terminated by an injury when he became a civilian administrator with the SRPD.

Through his 21 years with the city, Habkirk’s contributions included a lead role in the building of the police-fire headquarters in 1982 and in the training and directing of all SRPD employees who weren’t officers.

An agreeable and modest man grateful to the first responders who saved him when he suffered cardiac arrest after a high-school football game in 1988, Habkirk died Tuesday at his Santa Rosa home. He was 79.

William Ronald Habkirk was born in Michigan and as a young man served in the Air Force, and then went to work managing a paint store in his home state. He had moved to California and married Rosalie Krankel, a nurse he’d met on a blind date, when he decided to pursue a career in law enforcement.

He became a CHP officer in 1966.

“His first assignment was in San Francisco,” Rosie Habkirk said. “He worked the Bay Bridge.”

Bill Habkirk had been a patrol officer only a few years when, while working in Santa Clara County, he badly injured his back on the job. He took a disability retirement and then enrolled at San Jose State College, earning a degree in criminal justice.

Focusing on police administration, finance and management, Habkirk worked for a time for Sunnyvale before he was hired onto the South San Francisco Police Department by then-chief Sal Rosano.

In 1974, Santa Rosa hired Rosano to succeed retired police chief Melvin “Dutch” Flohr, a generally beloved, autocratic, larger-than-life lawman who since 1940 had run the town pretty much as though he owned it.

Rosano recalled as the new chief, “It didn’t take me long to figure out I needed help.”

Santa Rosa’s police department was understaffed, inadequately equipped, seriously lacking in written standards and procedures, and behind the times. Rosano hired Habkirk to help him expand and professionalize the department. Habkirk became indispensable to the chief’s efforts in demonstrating to the city manager at the time, Ken Blackman, and to the City Council that the less than $1 million spent on the Police Department wasn’t nearly enough.

“Bill always knew where to find the money,” Rosano said. With Habkirk’s help, Rosano grew and modernized the department and for years increased the budget by about $1 million a year.

Habkirk became a division commander responsible for overseeing the communications center, the crime-scene technicians and all other functions outside of patrol and investigations. Rosano said Habkirk also oversaw the departmental budget and purchasing of everything “from toilet paper to police cars.” Beyond his value as a leader, Habkirk was a joy to work with, Rosano said.

“He was a very quiet, gentlemanly guy, never raised his voice. Never blew his own horn. Very easy to get along with, very smart.”

Habkirk was 48 years old when, on Nov. 12, 1988, he collapsed after helping to officiate a football game at Montgomery High School. A nurse who happened to be nearby hurried to him and began CPR.

One of Habkirk’s six children, Denise Hinkson, of Antelope in Sacramento County, said she shudders to imagine what might have happened had the cardiac arrest occurred minutes later, when her father was driving home from the game alone.

Though Habkirk recovered and returned to work, his wife in Santa Rosa said that in recent years “his heart gradually just got a little worse.”

After his retirement from the SRPD in 1996, Habkirk enjoyed time with his family and on the golf course. He also volunteered for years at the Luther Burbank Center for Arts.

He also is survived by daughter Debbie Habkirk of Denver; sons Stephen Habkirk of Petaluma, James Habkirk of Washougal, Washington, Duane Habkirk of Santa Rosa and David Habkirk of Sonoma; 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at St. Rose Catholic Church.

Habkirk’s family suggests in lieu of flowers memorial donations be made to Catholic Charities, P.O. Box 4900, Santa Rosa, CA 95402, or srcharities.org; or to Sutter Hospice, 110 Stony Point Road, Suite 200C, Santa Rosa, CA 95401.

You can reach Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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