August 2, 2009 By Bill Schrier
A long time ago in a city far far away I was a street cop. A police officer working the beat. It wasn't a large city - Dubuque, Iowa - 65,000 people and probably 60 or 70 policemen. Yes "policeMEN". The first women were hired into the Dubuque PD while I was there, and I - at 5' 9" and 170 pounds - was one of the smallest cops on the force.
In those days, technology was not really part of an officer's life. Times have changed, they REALLY have changed. The Seattle Police Department has just implemented a new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system which is fundamentally altering policing at the City of Seattle - the "SPIDER" project. Technology is now - literally - at the right and left hand of virtually every cop - and firefighter and emergency medical tech.
When I was on the street, my primary technology was the radio in my police cruiser. The voice radio was (and still is) the lifeline for public safety officers on the street. But, in the 1970s, when I walked out of the car, I also walked away from that lifeline. We didn't have handheld or portable radios, nor did cell phones exist. If there was a problem when we were away from the car, we depended upon each other to "drive by" and check on us (and cops still do that), or on a citizen to use a land-line telephone to notify dispatch. That was scary.
Now police officers carry a handheld radio, and a lapel mike, and every Seattle radio has an emergency button which, when pressed, alerts dispatch center that the officer is in trouble. The emergency alert triggers a display of badge number on the dispatch console. The radios can communicate with officers throughout the region. And automatic vehicle location (AVL) shows the location of every police and fire apparatus in the City. All of this tech doesn't mean policing is easier or safer than it was in the 1970s - on the contrary, there are new issues and dangers, which I'll mention a little later.
We did reports by hand, on paper. We filled out index cards for car stops. And every call to police/fire emergency was logged on a card with a timestamp. When we wanted to get information about a license plate or driver's license, the dispatcher looked up the info in a set of file cards or - this was really high tech in the 1970s - typed the request into a teletype machine for someone in some far city (like Des Moines) to look up on their index cards.