DS Roberts calls it a day
Norwell Roberts was the first black officer to join the Metropolitan Police. On Thursday he retires after 30 years' service. He'll take with him three commendations; he'll also remember the racial abuse that used to make him weep. By Robert Verkaik
Tuesday 25 March 1997
For Norwell Roberts, the humiliation of being forced to grow up wearing a dress was good preparation for being London's first black policeman, something for which he has suffered cruel racial abuse from fellow officers.
But he is fiercely proud of his achievement: "They will remember the first policeman; the second or the third they will forget, but the first is always something special. Did you know there's a Trivial Pursuit question about me?"
Norwell Roberts hands in his warrant card at Golders Green police station on Thursday. For the past 30 years he has been the Metropolitan Police Force's most effective weapon in the campaign for racial equality. Ever since he joined in 1967, the powers-that-be have been judiciously wheeling him out to present the racially-tolerant face of British policing.
Detective Sergeant Roberts's six packed scrapbooks are testimony to that: sentry duty at Rhodesia House after Ian Smith had ordered the hanging of three black men; crowd control during the controversial Springbok tour in 1970; and front-line duty at anti-Vietnam demonstrations outside the American Embassy.
But the fact that Norwell Roberts has managed to complete 30 years as a black police officer in this country says more about his own extraordinary powers of self-determination than about any racial harmonisation policy at the Met.
He points to a scar on his head that he acquired while attending a secondary modern school in Bromley, Kent. "That's where the sixth form dropped me, to see what colour my blood was," he says. He arrived in Dover at nine years old, after his mother had managed to secure a position as a housemaid. His father had died when he was just three; his stepfather kicked him out of his London home when he was 15 years old.
It was while working as a laboratory technician at the University of London that Norwell Roberts responded to an early example of positive discrimination. By 1967 the Met had realised that it could no longer afford to ignore Britain's ethnic communities in its recruitment policy. An advertisement was placed in the Daily Mirror asking for black candidates to become police officers. "I thought I'd apply for a joke. I didn't think I would get it. I knew people had applied before and failed without any reason being given. The first I knew of my success at the selection board was a newspaper story. I think it said 'coloured man on way to join police force'. They didn't bother to inform me first."
In fact, he enlisted on the same day as the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon. Condon was a graduate entrant and thereby guaranteed at least the rank of inspector. Norwell Roberts took until 1976 to make detective sergeant. It was two years after he joined the force that the Met recruited the second black officer. "If I hadn't stuck it, there probably wouldn't have been a second or a third," he says.
In those first three years he had to endure a systematic and unrelenting campaign of racial abuse, principally at Bow Street police station in Covent Garden, which was his first placement.
"There was a very old PC who hated black people. He was stick-happy and loved to use his truncheon on black people. He told everybody not to talk to me, and threatened them if they did. He had his own cup, his own seat in the canteen and his own place on parade where nobody dared stand. It was the usual bully nonsense. I had buttons ripped off my uniform, matchsticks stuck in the keyhole of my car, half crowns scratched down the side of the car. I had my tyres slashed. And my car was relocated to double yellow lines, where it was towed away to the car compound. I also had cups of tea thrown in my face."
When he tried to carry out his duties and called for radio back-up, none was forthcoming, and no explanation was forthcoming.
"I used to get in the bath and just cry. That was my way of getting rid of it or becoming used to it."
But he remembers that it was the feeling of not belonging that hurt the most. "A couple of policeman I came out of training school with also came to Bow Street. Because it was unfashionable to talk to me, they also didn't talk to me. But when we'd come out they were my friends."
As far as the black community was concerned, Roberts was a "traitor in a white man's job:" Yet, despite all this, he says there was only ever one time he contemplated leaving. "It was a lovely sunny day and I was walking outside the Covent Garden Opera House when a driver from an area car [police car] wound down his window and shouted, 'you black c***'. I was ashamed, because it had been so in the open; it was the final straw."
That was also the only time Norwell made an official complaint about racial harassment. But his superintendent refused to do anything about it.
"I thought, damn, I've lost; this was the first time I had ever let on that it affected me. As far as they were concerned they were just giving it and I was taking it, and they thought, this guy must have really thick skin; he's too thick to realise what we are saying to him."
Roberts took refuge from his fellow officers out on his Covent Garden beat, where he made friends with the market porters, the cab drivers and the British public, who took to him more readily. "Having so much pressure from inside the station, seeing people who wanted to talk to me was such a relief; it was like manna from heaven. I never wanted to go back to the station. I just went back for my grub."
While being mostly unaware of the bitter hatred and resentment Norwell's presence engendered in the ranks, his superiors at Scotland Yard were happy to make political capital out of him. He spent the early part of his career standing outside Rhodesia House. Then, when attention switched to the South African embassy, he found himself posted there. Sir Robert Mark, a former Met Commissioner, told the media that Roberts "had done more to promote good relationships with the black community than anyone else". Says Roberts: "By the very fact that they'd decided to take me, they made a statement saying 'look, there we are, we're not racist'. But I think I have been used correctly, and with dignity."
Yet Roberts was also a good detective. In 1972 he joined the CID, and was made sergeant four years later. Three times he has been commended for 'professionalism, initiative and detective ability', including work he did in helping to solve a contract killing in just six days.
Roberts has his own theory on racism in the police. "Of 29,000 officers [816 are black] there may be 100 people who are racist. But they need to be educated, and I think the police is now doing all it can to educate them."
To this end, Roberts has made his own contribution by giving talks at the Home Office-sponsored racial awareness programme: "If officers see racism or hear it in the canteen, do something about it. Don't stand there and accept it and be one of the fodder. Approach the person, speak to him and point out the error of his ways."
Early one morning recently, he was driving to see his mother when a police car flashed him down. "Two policemen got out, a tall one and a short one. The tall one had his hand on his truncheon, like John Wayne. His leg was shaking; he was going to stick me. The little one was just writing furiously. They shouted 'name!' When I said Detective Sergeant Norwell Roberts, the tall one replaced his truncheon and buttoned up his shirt, the little one threw his notes on the ground; they did everything bar cleaning my shoes. " Roberts then took them back to have tea with his mother. "You know what it was all about? Assumptions. Black man in a nice car: that's not right."
It's stories like this that have helped to make Roberts the focal point for other black officers who have encountered racism, and even white officers who feel they are being victimised. He is currently counselling a black officer working at a north London police station who has been subjected to demands that he present his passport and birth certificate.
"Because I've been there, I can say, 'I know how you must feel.' When I tell officers the things that happened to me, their mouths drop open. They can't believe other policemen can be like that."
Last year, when he received his Queen's Police Medal for distinguished service, Norwell Roberts offered Prince Charles help in combating racism in the Life Guards. "I could do it all over again," he says. "I've done it once; I know the way to fix it. It would be a lot easier now".
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