Black officers around southwest, central Virginia speak up about walking the “blue line”

Local News

ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. (WFXR)– Three officers in our area spoke with WFXR News about their experience as Black men and women walking the “blue line”.

Last summer, protests erupted following the killing of George Floyd, and that tension spilled over into the deadly capitol riots earlier this year.

One voice that is often not heard is that of Black officers in Roanoke-area departments.

In their role as professionals, many are expected to hold their tongue on issues that may affect them on a personal level.

Three officers spoke to WFXR News exclusively about being Black while walking the “blue line.”

The three officers are history makers in their own departments. They say they receive support, but also backlash.

“We have a pretty big Black community here in town, and I know most of them, I went to school with most of them,” said Sgt. Boreika Burwell, who is with the Rocky Mount Police Department. “Most of them know my parents.”

Burwell joined the Rocky Mount Police Department in 2014 and is the department’s first female sergeant.

“Instead of going the extra mile of, you know, arresting somebody, you can find alternatives for people. You can make sure that you do the right thing for your community,” Burwell said.

Officer Urshulla Meade grew up in Madison Heights and is the first Black woman to work for the Town of Bedford’s Police Department, which has come with some backlash on social media.

“Just don’t think of me as a sell-out just because I chose this profession and you chose something else” she explained. “Like, I’m still an African American female and that doesn’t change. Like I wake up Black, I go to sleep Black, everything I do, I’m still a Black woman.”

Meade says she has never felt pressure to choose between being Black and wearing Blue.

“I’ve understood the argument that this is our uniform and we definitely can take this off, so I won’t say ‘Blue Lives Matter’, because you know, ‘Black Lives’, you can’t stop being Black, but I can take this uniform off at the end of the day, but I do think that respect goes both ways.”

Officer Urshulla Meade, Town of Bedford Police Department

Officer Thurmond Butts with the Roanoke County Police Department sees things a little differently, explaining he “doesn’t see color.”

“Someone was saying, well Black lives matter. Well, I agree with you, I also believe that blue lives matter, green lives matter, white lives matter,” he explained.

Both Butts and Meade are veterans — Meade joined her department two years ago, and Butts joined his in 2015. He is the first Black person to join his department’s SWAT team.

“I want to keep people safe. There’s no greater rewarding job than doing what I’m doing right now,” he continued.

Now he is passing his knowledge on to cadets at the Roanoke County training facility for new officers. Two of those cadets are Avory Johnson and Dustin Swaine.

Johnson assured WFXR News that despite the perception, “I will for sure always be one of those guys who does what’s right, and I’ll never waiver from that.”

Swaine said he had to join now.

“What mainly made me want to join the police force is really changing the image of policing and how it’s looked at throughout society, with you know, the recent events that have happened.”

Dustin Swaine, cadet with Roanoke County Police Department

Recently, two of Burwell’s colleges were investigated and fired for their alleged involvement in the capitol riots. She said the experience brought the department closer together.

When asked about the incident, she did not have much to say. She did remark:

“It wasn’t my life, it wasn’t my decision. But as a department, I think that we’ve come together even more. You know, you’ve got to call people out when people are wrong, absolutely. But you’ve got to focus on your job, focus on your community, and doing it the right ethical way.

Sgt. Boreika Burwell, Rocky Mount Police Department

All of the officers agree that their ultimate goal is to help their communities by any means necessary.

“You’ve got to get out into those neighborhoods that you know people are scared to go into, and honestly as a police officer I really don’t think that you should be scared to go into a neighborhood,” Meade stated.

“Seeing the things that other people go through in other jurisdictions it strives me more to do my job the right way,” Burwell explained. “To take that extra second to have a little bit more care for somebody.”

WFXR News asked local police departments and sheriff’s offices how many Black officers were on their force:

Roanoke County Police Department 8
Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office2
Rocky Mount Police Department2
Franklin County Sheriff’s Office7 Sworn Deputies, 10 Personnel
Town of Bedford Police Department1
Floyd County Sheriff’s Office1
Salem Police Department8
Salem Sheriff’s Office0
Bedford County Sheriff’s Office1
Roanoke Police Department14
Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office52
Craig County Sheriff’s Office0
Blacksburg Police Department4
Christiansburg Police Department2
Lynchburg Police Department18
Vinton Police Department3

WFXR News has reached out to the Roanoke County Sheriff’s Office for their numbers, but have not received a response.

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