Black Policing in the UK
SECTION: POLICE & CRIME
The first Black police officer was John Kent (1805 – 20 July 1886) who was a British police constable at Maryport, later with the Carlisle City Police, he was the first black police officer in Britain.
He served seven years in the office of constable at Carlisle before being dismissed from his role in 1844, but then became a court bailiff, and then a Parish Constable at Longtown in Cumbria.
He was described as a “quiet, inoffensive man” as well as a “big powerful man” who worked for the local authority, and laid paving slabs. Aa a black man was a rare sight in this part of the north-west of England, even before he joined the police he attracted crowds as he laid the pavements for the city corporation.
Whilst in his police duty it’s believed Kent was credited with several arrests. He provided several accounts in his later years, one of arresting two “coiners”. After arresting one suspect, he handcuffed him to the fire grate in his own house. He left an unloaded pistol with his wife, telling her to shoot the prisoner if he tried to escape. Kent then apprehended the second outstanding suspect.
The National Black Police Association (NBPA) attaches huge significance to the discovery of John Kent’s career, which it says is totally unexpected. “The significance is that while we had people of colour joining that far back, it took until 2003 before we had the first black chief constable”
As for why John Kent was dismissed from his position after just seven years with the Carlisle constabulary, it was regrettably for being drunk on duty – a common occurrence among officers at the time. A lack of clean drinking water in the city is often blamed for excessive beer consumption. The young officer was duly disciplined and his services dispensed of with the constabulary on 12 December 1844.
Norwell Roberts – The Metropolitan Police first black Police officer.
In 1967 the first ever Metropolitan Police officer was Norwell Roberts, thought to have been the first black Police Officer in the UK (until the emergence of information on John Kent in Cumbria in the 1800s and Astley Lloyd Blair who joined Gloucestershire Constabulary as a Special Constable in 1964). Norwell Roberts story is documented well
Detective Sergeant Norwell Roberts decided to join the Met the in 1967 he was looking for a new challenge, little did he know then just how pivotal that decision would be.
As the first post war black officer to join the Met, Norwell would face many challenges throughout his esteemed career, and he was subjected to racism and prejudice both in and outside of work. However after a lifetime of service, his effort was rewarded when in 1996 Norwell was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service.
Speaking of the racism he experience inside and outside of the force, he said It only made him more driven to stay in the service, and to work his way up the ranks. He say’s ” I had experienced a lot of that at school in the fifties but I had no idea that I would have to face it as a police officer. I assumed that I would just be accepted but sadly that was not the case. Looking back now, I can see I should have anticipated it. However, the worse I was treated the stronger it made me.
“….To my surprise, when I applied the second time around, I was successful. ”– Norwell Roberts on joining the Met
Speaking of his main reason for joining the police Norwell says ” I remember seeing an advert in the Daily Mirror which said ‘London needs more policemen’. At the time I was working as a Scientific Laboratory Technician, for one of the University of London’s Colleges. I felt like I had gone as far as I could in my current job and was ready for a new challenge.”
He said “I had originally applied the year before in 1965 and was refused, without reason. I suspect it was because London was not ready for its first black police officer at that time. To my surprise, when I applied the second time around, I was successful. I remember shortly after being accepted, my friend showed me an article that read ‘London to have the first coloured police officer’ and he exclaimed “that’s you!” He would be proved to be quite correct.
The reaction of his family and friends of his joining the police was positive “They were very pleased, I don’t think anyone thought I would get through but my mother was very happy when I did. At that time we were living in Bromley, Kent. I remember when we first moved there it dawned on me that no one in that area had ever seen a black person before.”
Norwell suffered discrimination even in his youth growing up in a new multicultural Britain right from his earliest days; on passing his 11+ in my Primary School, he was offered a local grammar school placement only to told by headmistress of the primary school that though he’d passed the entrance exam, ‘I would not be sent there because I had to learn the English ways’.
In 1996 Norwell was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service. When I first found out I thought it was a joke, a wind up from another officer. When I realised it wasn’t, I felt extremely proud and that everything I had been through had been worth it. DS Norwell Roberts spent over 30 years in the Metropolitan Police and experienced a varied career and worked hard to pave the way for other future black officers.
Of today’s police Norwell recounts “Nowadays people are much more accepting. There are officers from all different backgrounds in high ranking positions. For example no one would never have dreamt in my day that the commissioner would be a woman. The uniform and equipment and the people and opinions have all changed for the better.”
Looking back over your 30 year career at the Met when asked if it was all worth it, Norwell said “I would do it all over again in a heartbeat if asked.”
Sislin Faye Allen – The UK’s first Black Female Police Officer
Sislin Fay Allen became the the first ever black female police officer in the Met and the UK in 1968.
Sislin started her career working as a nurse at Croydon’s Queens Hospital, but decided to completely change careers after seeing a recruitment advert for male and female officers.
She trained at Peel House, and then became stationed at Fell Road police station in Croydon, which was near her family and where she lived. Following her appointment, the Met received hate mail from the public.
After a year in Croydon, she was posted to the Missing Persons Bureau at Scotland Yard. Later in her career she transferred to Norbury police station. In 1972, Sislin resigned from the Met and returned to Jamaica with her Jamaican-born husband and two children.
However In Jamaica, she continued her policing career and joined the Jamaica Constabulary. Returning to the UK later and settling down with her family in South London. She has since returned to Jamaica again where she now lives.
Obviously these pioneers of policing from BAME community are inspiring, however there is a need still for Police forces throughout the UK to recruit and engage ethnic minority officers if they are to keep the trust of the public, a watchdog has warned.
The Inspectorate of the Constabulary fears that an overwhelmingly white police force is not representative of the community it serves, with cuts in Police numbers combined with a rise in the number of minorities in local communities, is making that disparity even greater. A predominately white police force doesn’t reflect the UK in the 21st Century.
A report called ‘Policing in Austerity: Meeting the Challenge’ blames budget cuts for the problem, as financially-stretched forces struggle to take on more non-white officers.
The report states: ‘Many forces have had limited opportunities to recruit new staff.
A total of 6,966 of the 131,258 police officers in England and Wales, or 5.2 per cent, are from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared to an estimated 13 per cent of the British population as a whole.
Assistant Chief Constable Richard Bennett from the College of Policing says ‘The whole model of British policing is based on policing by consent and it is based on legitimacy.
‘There is a real danger as our population moves towards 20 to 25 per cent black and minority ethnic (BME) membership – in some of our police areas 40 per cent – while the police service has only 10 per cent black and minority ethnic representation, that we will start to lose a degree of legitimacy. The police service needs to be as representative as it can be so it can respond to the needs of all communities.’
The Police in the United Kingdom’s own black police officer association’s chair Detective Sergeant Janet Hills – its first female Chair – talking to Black History Month about the history of the Met Police Black Police Officers Association (MetBPA UK) .
Detective Sergeant Janet Hills said “The MetBPA has been involved with so many ground breaking events over the years. The Macpherson Report allowed us to give a submission from both the community’s point of view as well as from the police’s. As we all came from the Black community, we were able to give a lot of ‘added value’ when it comes to looking at diversity in policing in the broader sense. This was very insightful to the panel, as were the Morris Inquiry in 2004 that looked at the issues of unfairness and race inequality in the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). The Race and Faith Inquiry also covered similar issues”.
She added “The MetBPA has three main objectives: firstly, to improve the working conditions for Black, Asian, minority ethnic officers and police staff in London. We achieve this by providing our members with a support network that addresses issues of unfairness in all its guises and offers advice to managers on how to deal with cultural and race issues. Secondly, we have an outward-facing role, which involves working within local communities to help enhance service delivery, and to allow access to policing from communities that do not necessarily have trust or confidence in the police. ‘Revival’ our anti-violence programme goes into our communities to talk about the issues that impacts on them and to help build trust and confidence in the police service.”
The third important objective of MetBPA is in police recruiting of young blakc people she said “Thirdly, our VOYAGE (Voice Of the Youth And Genuine Empowerment) programme looks after young people in London, affording them a BTEC qualification for Year 9 students, which is an additional qualification for when they go out into the jobs market. We have had about 3,000 young people going through the programme.”
On the future of the Met Black Police Officers Association DS Hills says: “For many of us, there is an element that one day the MetBPA will not have to exist, because ultimately the MPS will have got it right. For me, that is the ambition; we were created because there was a need. I would like to see the MetBPA continue to work with the MPS to the position where we are truly integrated in policing”