“They will remember the first policeman; the second or the third they will forget, but the first is always something special,” said Norwell Roberts.
Born on October 23, 1945, in Anguilla, Roberts was three when his father died. Roberts would move to the UK from the West Indies six years later after his mother secured employment as a housemaid in England. He was nine.
According to Historical Geographies, Roberts was subjected to unprecedented prejudice at an early age to the extent that he was refused entry into a grammar school “because it was deemed he was not sufficiently ‘aware’ of English ways” despite passing 11 plus exams.
Rejected at home and having to survive amidst the cruelty of racism, Roberts secured himself a position at the University of London, working as a laboratory technician.
While at the University of London, Roberts completed an application form to join the Metropolitan Police after an advertisement was placed in the Daily Mirror calling 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 ‘colored man on way to join police force’. They didn’t bother to inform me first,” Roberts said.
Roberts officially joined Metropolitan Police (Met) in March 1967. He was 21.
According toHistorical Geographies, when Roberts joined the Metropolitan Police in 1967 there were only five other black police officers in the whole of the UK. All located outside of the capital. The number would rise to eight out of 21,500 after six years.
Two years after Roberts joined the force, Met would recruit its second black officer. “If I hadn’t stuck it, there probably wouldn’t have been a second or a third,” he said. Roberts became a detective sergeant in 1976, 10 years after joining the force.
“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,” Roberts recollected.
Roberts served at several police stations across the metropolitan area including West Hampstead, West End Central, Wembley, Kentish Town, Vine Street, Ealing, Albany Street, Barnet, and Acton.
During a career that spanned 30 years, Roberts spoke of how he was ignored when he called for backups during operations. “I used to get in the bath and just cry. That was my way of getting rid of it or becoming used to it.”
In 1996 Roberts was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal (QPM) for distinguished service – one of the highest awards given to members of the British constabulary.
Robert retired from the force in 1997.