Kathy Burke was already New York City police legend. Then she went beyond the call of duty with a groundbreaking support group for injured officers.
When Kathy Burke talks about losing a fellow officer, it is not simply as a professionally trained counselor, but also as a cop who has been there. Sixteen years ago, she was shot through the chest, and while she lay bleeding on the sidewalk, she saw her partner murdered at point-blank range.
Grief and newfound vulnerability forced her to re-examine her beliefs. "Once upon a time, when we were all young and fearless, we saw ourselves as superheroes," Burke says. "Then we got hurt. When we bled and cried just like everyone else, we had to struggle to come to grips with our mortality. All of us are grappling with our darkest fears." Among them is, she says, "Fear of not being able to answer that all-important question: 'What, in God's name, are we meant to do with the rest of our lives?'"
Burke's answer was to devote most of her time to the NYPD Police Self-Support Group, an organization of more than 130 cops and law enforcement agents who have suffered serious physical or psychological damage.
Long before she became a trauma counselor, Burke was a trailblazer in the NYPD. When she joined the force in 1968, she was the smallest cop ever: 5 feet 2 inches and 95 pounds. In 1971, she was promoted to detective third grade. Despite her success rate, sexist police chiefs would stall her next promotion for 12 years. In 1977, when, according to Burke, a sergeant resorted to abusive language and prevented her from making arrests, she filed a complaint with the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity. (She followed with a sex-discrimination lawsuit in federal court in 1986.) The complaint made her persona non grata in the squad, and she transferred to the Joint FBI Organized Crime Task Force.
A few months into her new gig, Burke and her partner, Anthony Venditti, 34, were doing surveillance on Mafia-controlled gambling dens in Queens. On January 21, 1986, the two detectives stopped at a diner on their way home. As Venditti emerged with a bag of takeout coffee, three men pressed him against a wall, flashing guns. Burke identified herself as a cop, ordered the men to freeze, and drew her weapon; one of the men shot her in the chest. As she crumpled onto the sidewalk, she fired five rounds, all of which went into the air. When Venditti reached for his gun, he was fatally shot in the head and back.
Three suspected mafiosi were arrested, but the effort to put them behind bars was an interminable ordeal. Four trials were held over the next seven years; although the defendants were eventually convicted of gambling charges in federal court, they eluded the murder rap.
Just two weeks after the final trial ended, she was diagnosed with stage-3 ovarian cancer, for which she underwent a hysterectomy and eight months of chemotherapy.
Now 58 years old and retired, Burke's activities go far beyond counseling groups. She visits hospitals and sits with dying cops, helps spouses of newly disabled mates, arranges psychiatric treatment for kids who have nightmares about their parent's injuries, cuts through red tape on medical insurance and finds legal aid for those who need it.
The success of the NYPD support group will ensure that one maverick cop's legacy continues.