I think it’s fair to say that the relationship between the black population in the UK and the police force has been and still is extremely strained.
I was a child of the 90s and I remember, like it was yesterday, when teenager Stephen Lawrence was killed by a gang of white racists in Eltham, and the subsequent lacklustre investigation by the police, which was later the subject of a damning landmark inquiry by Sir William Macpherson who went on to describe the service as ‘institutionally racist’.
I also remember the perpetual feeling of discrimination surrounding stop and search laws and the knowledge that as a black person the police were probably the last people you should call if you found yourself in trouble.
Over the years of course steps have been made to repair the trust between the black community and the police especially involving attempts to recruit more officers from ethnic minorities. According to recent figures there were 6,715 ethnic minority police officers in the 43 forces in England and Wales at the end of March 2014 and 20.1% of these are black or black British (see graph below showing make up of ethnic minority officers).
However the number of ethnic minorities in high ranking positions is still very low and this obviously reflects the fact that the issue of racism in the force is far from over.
While looking at the history of black Caribbean people in the UK I found the story of Norwell Roberts who joined the police in 1967 and was believed to be the first black police officer. Roberts was born in Anguilla in 1946 and moved to the UK with his mum after his dad died when he was nine years old. He served in the force for more than 30 years and in 1996 was honoured with the Queen’s Police Medal for distinguished service.
Roberts endured terrible racism during his career from his colleagues and the public. In an interview with the Telegraph he recalled how badly he was treated by a senior officer, he said: “On the very first day, the sergeant said to me, ‘I’ll see that you never finish your probation, nigger,’”. But he obviously persevered and his years of dedication show his commitment to service no matter what.
During further research on the contribution of black Caribbean people to the police in the UK it surprised me to read that it was only recently discovered that Roberts was preceded into the force by a man who lived in the 1830s and who is now recognised as the first ever black police officer in Britain – John Kent.
According to the records John’s father was a slave called Thomas who was brought to Carlisle from the West Indies to work as a servant by the Senhouse family. John, who is believed to have been born in the UK around 1795, joined the Carlisle constabulary in 1837 and served for seven years.
When John Kent’s history was discovered the national co-ordinator at the National Black Police Association, David McFarlane said: “A lot of people are under the misapprehension that black people only arrived here during the Windrush years…but people of colour have been in this country for centuries.
“There was a black Roman emperor, black soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall. These things are not taught in our schools and people are not aware of them, we have always been a multicultural country.”
Unfortunately John Kent was sacked from the police when he was found to be drunk on duty (which was a common occurrence among officers in those days apparently). But I don’t think this should distract from the fact that nearly 200 years ago a black Caribbean man was walking the beat in the UK which essentially means we have probably come further than we think.
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