South Yorkshire’s first black policeman, star of Channel 4's Yorkshire Cop show, recalls horrendous abuse
Over the last 40 years, Bill Thomas has been a pillar of the community in South Yorkshire.
Moving to the area in 1981, he became the county’s first black policeman when he arrived from Leeds – and he remains committed to making the county a better place, still working as a volunteer with the force’s Inspiring Youth programme 10 years after he retired.
But this week, during Black History Month, he has revealed how tough it was becoming South Yorkshire’s first black officer, outlining the difficulties he faced to his son in a television documentary.
Bill, from Swinton, was told at school in Leeds he should not aspire to anything beyond working as a labourer because of the colour of his skin.
But he took his dad’s advice that if he wanted to do something, he should just do it.
He decided to join the police after riots in 1981 and was accepted into the force, almost 20 years before the Macpherson report forced the police to confront institutional racism.
Bill's four months at Dishforth police training centre, as the only black recruit, were tough.
One fellow trainee leapt on him as he slept, spitting abuse. Others took his notebook and defaced it. Superior officers refused to listen to his protests.
But he got on with it and was soon stationed at Rawmarsh Police Station.
It was a tough time, and his work saw him involved in policing the miners strike. He was at Orgreave.
He was also drafted in to police a National Front March in Sheffield, having to protect those on the march.
He said: “That was not difficult to do. When you start the job, you’re aware you’re going to do things that are not necessarily your first choice. You just remember you’re not on the protesters' side – your job is to maintain peace.
"But what came out of it, was that there were people who cared about what I was doing. One man come up to me and shook my hand and said he had never seen anyone like me in the uniform.”
Bill said policing the streets of South Yorkshire was not as bad as people had told him it would be.
"I was well prepared,” he told The Star. “I had been told people may be against seeing a black face – but it didn’t really turn out like that. It was more surprise. For instance, I said good morning to a couple of ladies at a bus stop. They said ‘bl**dy hell, he speaks English. The first couple of weeks, it was brand new for the local kids, and they followed me round like the pied piper. It was nothing I felt uncomfortable with toward me.”
He went on to become the community constable for Kilnhurst.
He became an important part of his local community. When many families were struggling, Bill set up a local association, organising fundraising activities 'to bring a little bit more happiness into the community'.
And having been the first black officer, he went on to help others.
As more black recruits joined the force, Bill set up the county’s first Black Police Association in the late 1980s. At first it was an informal arrangement. He had met other officers while at work while policing events like football matches. It became a formal organisation in the late 90s.
"From speaking to other officers, it was clear some support would be useful,” he said. “It was just to discuss if there was anything we could do differently. It was an element of reassurance, as simple as that. It would just be little things that were brought up.”
Bill is hopeful that things have improved for black officers in the force, but says it is 10 years since he retired. But he does feel that generally, police forces tend to look too much to outside organisations for advice about how best to deal with racial issues, rather than speaking to their own black officers, who he feels are in the best place to comment.
He said: “Policing is not about academia."
Since the documentary was made, people have come to Bill and said how much they enjoyed it. "They’ve got to know about me and my work in the community," he said. "I think it shows the strength of policing has to be in the communities, and that is where the emphasis should be.
"I would encourage others to follow in my footsteps. Ask yourself why you want to join, and join.
"I have no regrets. I worked hard on the circumstances I was presented with.
"I didn't pick up on the strength of feeling in the community of support for me until after the programme was shown.”
He said he thought he had helped make Kilnhurst and Swinton better places during his time as an officer there.
Bill feels that he was able to do good community policing. He remembers one incident, where an elderly couple were having a problem with children nearby. He introduced them to one another, and before long, the couple and the children became friends.
He also still remembers his first arrest, while he was based at Rawmarsh. It was a prolific shoplifter, who was stealing to feed a drug habit. “I think it was in Dalton,” he said.
"Someone once said the fact that I was out during the night saved them from getting mugged,” he added. “Someone had seen my silhouette, and said ’that’s Bobbie Bill'. Sometimes that’s all it takes”
Yorkshire Cop: Police, Racism And Me can be streamed on All 4.