As the newly elected sheriff for Hampton in November 1992, B.J. Roberts said he’d walked into the downtown jail certified for 135 but spilling over with about 500 inmates.
He’d become the first African-American to serve in the position and was the first African-American president for the National Sheriffs’ Association in 2010, but most recently, Roberts was deemed No. 1, or the longest serving sheriff in the state, by the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association.
Looking back on his 30-year tenure, Roberts said one of his biggest disappointments will be that he won’t get to see through the project for a new building to replace the original 1962-constructed downtown facility, but he will be revered as a historic figure in the organization and a catalyst for change in the community.
His achievements include establishing an entire training unit for new deputies and overseeing the renovation of a warehouse in 1998 for what is now the Hampton Community Corrections Center, a minimum-security facility with a capacity for 300 inmates.
“I hope when I came here, I made things better than the way I found it and if I’ve done that I’ve got to be a little bit proud of it,” he said.
More than just being able to house more inmates, Roberts said the office has also developed and implemented programs that allow inmates to receive their GED, participate in work-release, or even occupational training to carry with them after their release.
“For example, if an inmate works in the kitchen, they have to be trained and get a certificate…everything has a purpose and I’m really proud of that,” he said. “A lot of things that we wanted to get in place have come to fruition.”
At 70 years old, Roberts said his time to retire is coming soon but he’ll continue to serve the community through volunteer work and in support of a cause he said is pervasive in his personal and occupational experiences.
“We saw a trend that we didn’t realize would be so devastating and would become a part of [corrections] was mental health,” he said. “I think that [mental health] is the most dramatic, overwhelming movement that has taken place since ’92 and with the acknowledgment from the community that it is a problem.”
Roberts, a member on the Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board, said when his term is up in 2021 he’ll be able to dedicate the hours to supporting mental health programs and initiatives in the city while also spending time with and caring for his elderly brother, sister, and 65-year-old nephew who has special needs.
Born in Mullins, South Carolina, Roberts moved to Newport News and then Hampton as a child before he graduated from what used to be George P. Phenix High School in 1968.
Roberts started as a Newport News patrol officer in 1972 and received his business management degree from Hampton University in 1986. He’d serve 19 years at his alma mater with the campus police and then as the director of Police and Public Safety until his first term as sheriff in 1992.
“Never really could’ve imagined where I come from through the projects of Newport News that I would ever, or could ever have gone to the places and heights that I’ve been to…I hope I’m representing Hampton, the state on a national level well,” he said.
His legacy will be one of honesty and humble service with distinction, and Roberts said for the next sheriff “if you can pull those two things off, I think you’ll be successful.”