For as long as Sara Katherine Burke-Smith can remember while growing up in Woodville she’s revered one person in her life more than any other — her uncle, Gary Settle.
“He is the person I’ve looked up to ever since I was a little girl,” the 29-year-old Burke-Smith tells the Rappahannock News. “He is a true inspiration. And a humble guy.”
Which made last Friday’s commencement exercises at the Virginia State Police Training Academy in Richmond, and the presentation of one award in particular, all the more special — for the niece and her uncle alike.
“My heart was full that I got presented with that award by the colonel of the State Police who is my uncle,” she says of Lt. Col. Gary T. Settle, Superintendent of the Virginia State Police.
Apart from her trooper’s diploma, the 2007 graduate of Rappahannock County High School was singled out among her class of officers to be recipient of the academy’s “Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Robinson Physical Training Award.”
Which probably comes as no surprise to her family, including her proud parents Richie and Robin Burke of Woodville.
“I was a very young girl when I knew I wanted to [go into law enforcement], and then right out of high school . . . I joined the sheriff’s office in Rappahannock. I started as a dispatcher and a jailer,” recalls Burke-Smith, who like her father was also a first responder with the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department. She worked at the RCSO for about five years, until 2012.
In fact, when Burke-Smith was in elementary school her Uncle Gary was sheriff of Rappahannock County, from 1996 to 2000. He too began his law enforcement career with the RCSO, starting out as a deputy in 1983. He joined the Virginia State Police three years later, promoted to sergeant, special agent, field lieutenant, division supervisor, division commander, and finally last January Governor Ralph Northam appointed him Virginia’s top law enforcement officer, overseeing 2,966 troopers, special agents, and employees.
After leaving the RCSO, Burke-Smith joined the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office, where upon graduating from law enforcement school she became a deputy. She left the CCSO in 2017 to set her sights on becoming a trooper, a force she calls “the best of the best.”
Prior to Friday’s commencement, she received more than 300 hours of classroom and field instruction in nearly 50 subjects, including firearms, crime scene investigation, officer survival, defensive tactics, crisis management, ethics and leadership, police professionalism and judicial procedures.
Speaking to the News from Richmond this week, Superintendent Settle said he and his wife, Kelly Jo, were always very close with “Katie,” who he likened to “a daughter.”
“She is very special to us for many reasons,” said the superintendent, pointing out that he and his wife never had children of their own. “We’ve been so proud of her over the years.”
And then personally, as a law enforcement officer, “to watch her career and see her mature,” he said.
Settle described being quite “emotional watching Katie walk across the stage” to receive her academy diploma, calling it “a good day for the entire family.”
Burke-Smith will report to her duty assignment July 5 for a final phase of training — six weeks paired with a field training officer to learn her new patrol area. Which one might argue she already knows like the back of her hand.
“I’ve been assigned to Division Two,” she discloses, which includes the counties of Culpeper, Madison and Orange. Her primary patrol area, however, will be Culpeper.
In other words slow down on 522.
And always remember to reduce speed when approaching stationary emergency vehicles, whether it’s yellow, red or blue flashing lights. Doing so saves lives.