Katie Roberts, ‘a pioneer’ as female cop in Ontario, dies – San Bernardino Sun


Katie Roberts was laid to rest Tuesday as she’d requested, in her full dress police uniform. That uniform represented not only the career she’d chosen but all she’d gone through to earn it.

Roberts, who died Nov. 14 at age 79, was a trailblazer, working her way up through the ranks of the Ontario Police Department from officer in 1971 to detective, sergeant, lieutenant and finally captain, the rank at which she retired in 2004.

“She was a pioneer,” Mike Lorenz, Ontario’s chief of police since 2020, told me Friday. “We have more women than we’ve ever had” — 24 out of 278 sworn personnel — “and all of that is attributable to Katie.”

In 1972, Roberts became the first woman to graduate from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Academy. They weren’t even set up for women to dress.

“She is the person who changed the face of law enforcement in our region,” Lorenz reflected. He added: “I can’t even imagine what she went through.”

Katie Roberts adjusts a vintage Ontario Police Department women’s uniform at the Ontario Rotary Police Museum in 2011. Roberts began her police career in skirt and pumps before being allowed to ditch them for slacks and boots. (Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

For clarity, she’ll be Katie Roberts in this column, but she was born Katherine Berkowitz, became Katie Zbinden when she married the first time, to Pomona cop Richard Zbinden, and Katie Roberts when she married the second time, to Ontario cop Gordon Roberts.

She was a Mount San Antonio College student with an interest in law enforcement when she applied to the Pomona Police Department as a secretary. This was 1963. She scored so well on the entry exam that she was hired instead as a dispatcher.

She gained experience, and Bonnie Jean Miller, a records clerk turned policewoman, was an inspiration. But that avenue didn’t seem open to her in Pomona, so she moved on to La Verne, where she was a dispatcher and reserve officer.

Then Ontario advertised for a policewoman, its first. She was hired. Duties were limited to dealing with female jail inmates and crimes involving children.

“Female officers were like babysitters,” Roberts recalled in 2010. “They didn’t have guns. They didn’t have uniforms.”

Katie Roberts, center with purse, graduates from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Academy in 1972, the first woman to do so. Roberts "changed the face of law enforcement in our region," Ontario's police chief says. (Courtesy Ontario Police Department)
Katie Roberts, center with purse, graduates from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Academy in 1972, the first woman to do so. Roberts “changed the face of law enforcement in our region,” Ontario’s police chief says. (Courtesy Ontario Police Department)

After three years behind a desk, and graduation from the academy, she was allowed to go out on patrol — a big step. The uniform she was issued: a skirt, hat and pumps.

She gritted her teeth and wore the non-functional outfit while fighting crime. This sometimes meant foot pursuits.

The last straw came one night in the mid-1970s.

“I chased someone over a wall, tripped in my high heels and my skirt was over my head,” she recalled years later.

That was that. She demanded a regular uniform, including pants and boots, and got them.

She was Ontario’s only female officer for seven years. It could be lonely.

Some veteran officers refused to work with her. Others would show up at incidents she was handling to try to take charge. She bonded with the department’s other underdogs, some of them a decade younger.

“I preferred to work with the graveyard shift. Those were the younger guys who got stuck with the night shifts, the ones in their early 20s,” she recalled in 2010 to the Bulletin’s Lori Consalvo. “To them, nobody got a break. We had to do everything on our own. I stayed with them as much as I could.”

Lloyd Scharf and Tony Baca were her friends on the force then. Scharf later became chief.

Roberts set out to prove that she could handle whatever assignments she was given. She was an investigator in the narcotics, gangs, robbery and homicide units. She became a sergeant in 1981, a lieutenant in 1987 and a captain in 1991.

Katie Roberts in an official portrait from the Ontario Police Department, where she served for 33 years until her 2004 retirement. (Courtesy Ontario Police Department)
Katie Roberts in an official portrait from the Ontario Police Department, where she served for 33 years until her 2004 retirement. (Courtesy Ontario Police Department)

A lot of men wouldn’t take a woman in a uniform seriously.

As Roberts once told me dryly: “There was a time when they said, ‘No, I want a real officer.’ And then they were sent to the watch commander — who was me.”

When John Evans went through the police academy in 1977, Roberts was the only female instructor. They worked together in Ontario the next 27 years, with Roberts always willing to go out of her way to answer questions and help.

That said, “she was no pushover. She stood her ground,” Evans, who retired in 2010 as deputy chief, told me Thursday. Lauding her as a forward thinker, he said: “She would’ve made a wonderful chief.”

She retired in 2004 as captain.

“I think I’ve pushed the glass ceiling up as far as I can,” she said at the time.

The department’s highest-ranking woman today is Melissa Ramirez, a sergeant. Hired in 2008 as only the department’s sixth female officer, she got to meet Roberts a couple of times on visits to the station. Those were special moments.

They discussed their careers and some of what Roberts went through, including the high heels. Ramirez would joke about how she preferred running in police boots and Roberts would chuckle knowingly.

Katie Roberts is seen shortly before her 2004 retirement. She spent 41 years in law enforcement, 33 of them with the Ontario Police Department as a sworn officer after stints in Pomona and La Verne as a dispatcher. (Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Katie Roberts is seen shortly before her 2004 retirement. She spent 41 years in law enforcement, 33 of them with the Ontario Police Department as a sworn officer after stints in Pomona and La Verne as a dispatcher. (Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

“Her presence made room for the rest of us to follow. She made that space for us,” Ramirez told me Friday.

Lorenz, the chief, said Roberts inspired him too. When he interviewed for an officer position in 1998, he met with her right before meeting the chief. His nerves were settled by her confidence and warmth. She banged her fist on the table and mock-chanted: “We want Mike! We want Mike!”

While most officers tried to avoid walking past a superior’s office for fear of a special assignment or a bawling out, people gravitated toward Roberts’.

“Everyone who went by Katie’s office, your day would be better,” Lorenz said.

I regretted that illness last week meant I couldn’t attend her viewing and funeral. I knew her only a little, respected her a lot.

Roberts stayed unusually active in the community in retirement with roles in multiple organizations, including several terms on the Chaffey College board. Slowed by Parkinson’s disease and her husband’s death in 2013, she began winding down.



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