One man’s quest to honor fallen Virginia police officers
Wrapped in a tarp beneath the sheet metal roof of a Richmond City shed is a forgotten memorial to the fallen officers of Richmond’s police department. The sculpted statue of a police officer wearing full uniform carrying a little girl and her teddy bear was created as an image of sacrifice and public service.
That heroic image has a completely different meaning for other Richmond communities that have a contrasting relationship with the institution of policing.
Retired police officer Glenwood Burley has been cordially, but incessantly, trying to elicit support from anywhere he can. His mission is getting the statue out of storage and restoring it to a proud place back in public. His eyes are set on the grounds of Virginia Capitol Square.
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He’s looked to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, the City Council, state and federal politicians and two governors, without garnering much support. Many have responded with complete silence.
When the protests rolled around in 2020, the memorial became a target. Demonstrators splattered the Richmond Police Memorial in red paint. Burley said he’d caught wind that a group was planning to take the head off of the statue. He moved quickly with help from the City to put it into storage.
Months of protests in 2020 were largely peaceful though at a moment of inflection, police hit demonstrators with tear gas.
But to Burley, the statue still represents the mission that police officers are sworn to uphold. He carries a plaque that accompanies the statue in his car with him everywhere he goes. That plaque has the names of all 28 officers that have died in the line of duty since it was founded.
“It’s symbolic of sacrifice. There are nine men on that plaque that were killed during my 23 years. Some I drank with, many I worked with, went to Christmas parties with, attended ceremonies and picnics,” Burley said. “They died sacrificing, and I’m blessed that I’m here. The thing that’s disheartening is that (their sacrifice) doesn’t seem to be given any reverence by the citizens of the city.”
The statue itself previously stood outside of the Richmond Coliseum. The arena had not yet closed but the memorial had become overgrown, littered with garbage and largely forgotten. Burley was instrumental in raising money and creating a committee to find it a new home near the Carillon at Byrd Park in 2016.
Burley’s quest has centered its sights on the Virginia State Capitol because he said it is the only place it will be safe from more vandalism.
“It hurts me, it cuts to my emotions to lose people that you worked with,” Burley said. “And then to know at 81 years old I’m rattling around in my black van, and I have the plaque underneath of some carpet in my van because I want the marker with the names to be with me wherever we go.”
He acknowledges that the public as a whole has not been supportive, but that silence from elected officials is the “unexplainable part of it.”
Moving the statue to the Capitol would require a proposal to be reviewed by the Capitol Square Preservation Council to present findings to the governor. The governor’s office would have to accept the statue as property of the Commonwealth and then it would be added as a capital project in the state budget.
Attempts to contact the local officials Burley reached out to were often unsuccessful. That list includes names like Stoney; U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Va.; state Sen. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico; and Richmond police. McClellan’s office said it had no record of Burley’s attempted contact, and didn’t comment on the issue, while Richmond Police acknowledged the request but didn’t respond after a week.
Richmond City Councilmember Reva Trammell said that she would be a supporter of wherever Burley wants to put the statue.
“I think people have realized that we need our police. I think things have changed since 2020,” Trammell said.
Still, the symbolism around Richmond Police Memorial is intricate, with different groups taking contrasting messages.
‘A police memorial feels similar to a Confederate monument’
Allan-Charles Chipman is the executive director for Initiatives of Change USA, a network of people who create conversations around healing inequities related to race, gender, religion, politics, language and education.
“For some people, especially in the African-American community who have experienced police brutality and the entirety of the (criminal justice) system, a police memorial feels similar to a Confederate monument,” Chipman said. “You have some community members who say a policing experience has led to the death of my daughter or my family or my loved one.”
Richmond Police Memorial isn’t the only symbol that’s been tucked away in storage without a certain future. Protests that coalesced around the Robert E. Lee monument resulted in a “living” protest monument of graffiti, signs, photographs of people killed by police violence and wooden boxes filled with plants around the perimeter of the circle. It was called the most important piece of protest art since WWII by the New York Times Style Magazine.
Chipman said there was a great deal of tension around the removal of the old Confederate monument’s pedestal. The statue itself was taken to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. Its pedestal, the piece with most of the graffiti, was put into storage until a decision could be made on its future.
“It would be very strange to take down and cover up a memorial for what policing has meant for one part of society and then push to put into Capitol square, another narrative of what policing means,” Chipman said.
“The public might be more willing to examine one part of that narrative than the other,” Chipman said. “It’s important to us — especially when talking about the public memory — not to pick and choose the narratives which get told but make sure that people can understand the proper history and the entire perspective of what it is.”
Former Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham also voiced his support for Burley.
“If I was still the chief, I would be pushing to have it back and trust me, it would have been back by now, back where it was (at Byrd Park),” Durham said.
Durham was the chief of police when Peters was shot and killed in 2018. He announced his resignation six months later saying that he was burnt out, and had nothing else to give. He said then that Peters’ death specifically had taken a toll on his thoughts.
He acknowledged that police can often have tense relationships with the public but maintained that defacing the statue was an “unacceptable and cowardly” act.
“As human beings there’s different ways that you can air your grievances without taking it out in a statue that can’t cause you harm,” Durham said. “If an officer causes you harm, speak to the police department, don’t take it out on a statue.”
Durham was a pivotal ally for Burley when moving the statue from both the Coliseum and Byrd Park, helping garner attention from city leaders and administrators while he was still chief.
“That’s not just a memorial for people who lost their lives but that’s a memorial for the family,” Durham said. “They will take their children, grandchildren, great, great, great grandchildren. They have nothing to come and see now.”
Durham said Capitol Square was a prime location for the memorial, though he ultimately favored a return to Byrd Park amid the political lift it could take to put it at the Capitol.
Like Burley, he says he’s also amazed by the silence.
“It baffles me that whenever there’s a loss of life in law enforcement. They’re the ones on the frontline, people always offer their thoughts and prayers. But, where are you now?” Durham said. “Those officers who have dedicated their lives to service and lost their lives protecting the communities that they represent.”
Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the nonprofit Marijuana Justice, said it’s important to make some decision over the future of these symbols in storage, whether it’s to create more conversation or just make a decision and leave them in the past.
“The question is about, will these monuments rise again, because there has been no concrete plan. Are we now going to spend another century deciding what to do with them? It is a worry,” Higgs Wise said.
Higgs Wise said the goal should be moving public consciousness beyond these symbols to create actual policies that benefit underserved communities in Richmond, often communities of color.
“If you parallel what that means for Black survival and just policymaking, we’re also in a state of limbo where we’ve been asking for so much help for so long,” Higgs Wise said. “These indecisive measures around monuments are also parallel to what happens to Black survival.”
Collection: Newly named Richmond police Chief Rick Edwards