Police communication

Today’s post is going to be especially relevant to folks who write spec fic or historicals. It has to do with the backbone of law enforcement: communication.

Nowadays, communication equipment is paramount to policing. That equipment comes in many forms: The emergency calling system (911 in the US) and the dispatchers it connects callers to. Police radios, computers, and phones. Dashboard and shoulder cameras. All of these create ways for police to communicate with the public and with each other.

But have you ever thought about how communication was managed before all these gadgets were available?

Prior to the late 19th century, if someone needed to call the cops, that person had to run to the police station and fetch them. In some places, rattles or bells were used, but as you might imagine, the range was limited, and the sounds could get swallowed in a noisy city. Furthermore, while these means might summon the cops, there was no effective way for police to communicate with each other.

The first police telephones came about in 1877. These were installed in public places, in boxes or kiosks, and allowed citizens to call the cops. An officer on the scene could also use the phone to talk to people back at the station. (TARDIS-style call boxes were introduced in the UK in 1929.) Police didn’t begin using two-way radios until 1933. Of course, portable computers and mobile phones arrived many decades later.

Even after police acquired improved communication devices, significant problems remained. One of these was incompatibility: the system used in one jurisdiction might not be able to connect to the system used in a neighboring jurisdiction. This made it hard for agencies to cooperate and share information. And since the US has a fragmented law enforcement system with thousands of different agencies, a single criminal event might involve multiple agencies.

The upshot of all of this is that if you’re basing your story in a different time than now—or in a different world—you should put careful thought into how your police will communicate. You could even use this as a plot point. While someone’s trying to call the cops in, say, 1840s Boston, your Bad Guy could be committing a lot of bad acts. Maybe that’s a good chance for your hero to step in?



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