Families of fallen Alexandria police officers push for a memorial


Judy Birney, left, lost her father 42 years ago and Ginny Hill-Obranovich lost her first husband 25 years ago. They are trying to raise money for a memorial in Alexandria. The two are photographed on the proposed site of the police memorial. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The man had come to pick up his teenage daughter, the victim of a domestic dispute, and he was angry.

“He said, ‘I don’t trust the police. I don’t like the police. There’s only one police officer I liked, Detective Birney, and he saved my life and he died,’ ” recalled former Alexandria police officer Judy Birney.

Birney was speechless, but her colleague pointed at her: “That’s his daughter.”

Instantly the man calmed. He told the officers that years earlier, when he was a teenager growing up in a city housing project, youth detective Conrad Lee Birney convinced him not to kill a neighbor in revenge. It was Christmas.

Two days later, Conrad Birney was killed in a bank robbery.

Moments like that are why, 42 years after her father’s death, Judy Birney is pushing for a memorial to honor him and 17 other Alexandria police officers killed in the line of duty.

“I met people 25 years after he died that he had arrested who still remember him — and remember him fondly,” said Birney. She said a memorial would educate the public about the sacrifice made by her father and other fallen officers.

The memorial campaign, started in 2007, has been moving in fits and starts. It had been planned as part of the new police headquarters built in 2011, but a design competition produced a plan that would cost $600,000, twice what was budgeted. The city said the money wasn’t available. The project languished.

The Alexandria Police Foundation, a group formed to raise money for the care of retired police dogs, promised to handle fundraising for the project. With legal help, the group took control of the memorial from the city. The architectural firm that designed the police building agreed to build the memorial at cost. About half the funds have been raised.

“They’ve captured the essence of this whole thing — the feeling, the emotion,” Willem Polak, the foundation’s chairman, said of the design, which uses glass panels and concrete blocks to sketch a history of the department and its losses.

Virginia Hill-Obranovich was asked to build the Web site for the foundation. Now she’s the executive director, a position she describes as “den mother.”

“She’s the one who holds us all together,” said Polak. “She’s the glue.”

Hall-Obranovich’s first husband, Charles Hill, was killed in a 1989 shootout with an escaped D.C. convict. A park and a shooting range are named after him. Still, the memorial is “very, very important” to her.

Most area police departments have physical memorials to honor fallen officers, but increasingly, such tributes have become virtual. Police departments regularly tweet out remembrances. A national nonprofit group, the Officer Down Memorial Page, maintains tribute sites for police officers. It’s where Myron “Keith” Nichols, who grew up in Alexandria, leaves messages for Conrad Birney every Christmas and keeps in touch with the family he left behind.

“As with every other year at Christmas I think of you Detective and say thanks for your being a friend to a kid whose own father wasn’t around much,” Nichols wrote last year.

But survivors want a monument that will be visible to anyone who comes to Alexandria police headquarters, in particular the officers there each day. One of them is Hill-Obranovich’s son Robert, who was 3 years old when his father died.

“On the anniversary of my dad’s death every year, the chief sends out an e-mail,” said Hill, a patrol officer with the Alexandria police. “But those are intangible things. The memorial is something everybody can touch and see and feel.”

You might think the descendants of long-dead officers would be less invested in a memorial. You would be wrong.

“It means a lot,” said Vicki Arnold Fillmore , whose great-grandfather, Julian F. Arnold, was the first Alexandria officer to die in the line of duty, in 1887, seven years after the department was established. (He’s preceded by a watchman and a constable.)

Fillmore learned of her family history from a plaque in City Hall that she spied on her way to pay a parking ticket as a teenager. “It makes me very proud, it truly does. It’s not just a name to me. They’re my ancestors, they’re my family,” she said.

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Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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