Police Equipment: Then, Now and It’s Impact on Police Culture
May 31, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — At my first police department, I was issued all the equipment I would need to be a cop in the housing projects of a major city. I was issued a Smith & Wesson model 64 in .38 Special, two speedloaders, one set of handcuffs, a 26-inch wood baton, a vest, and a badge. I provided an extra set of handcuffs and a flashlight. That’s what all cops carried back then.
Almost every department carried revolvers, although a few carried semi-auto pistols, and most of those departments carried revolvers in either .38 Special or .357 Magnum. Where I worked, we didn’t carry shotguns—the cars didn’t have lockable racks in them, and the officers who did carry them would slide them under the front bench seat. There were also no cages in the cars, no radars, no computers, and no cameras. There was a radio, but it wouldn’t scan.
Most of the cars had two “cherries” on a bar on the roof, one red, one blue, each with two sealed beam lights. Some of the richer suburbs had a lightbar called the Twinsonic, where the sealed beams were driven by a chain connected to a central motor. On both, the siren speaker was mounted directly over your head and was deafening when turned on—to the point that one could barely hear the radio, even at full volume.
That was it, and it was enough. Most gunfights used 3-5 rounds and were over quickly.
It’s different today. Police are typically issued a high capacity semi-automatic pistol, typically with a plastic frame and in .40 S&W. Officers now carry up to four extra magazines for the pistol, about 75 rounds total instead of the 18 we carried. They are issued two sets of handcuffs and also carry disposable “flexcuffs” which are like cable ties. They carry an expandable baton. They carry a badge and wear a vest, just like the old days. But they also have new toys. They have a taser on their belt. Pepper spray. Some now have body cameras.
The cars are equipped with scanning radios and GPS antennas so they can be located instantly. The light bars are made up of very bright LEDs, much brighter than the sealed beams of the old days. The siren speaker is now on a push bumper, which none of the old cars had. They have cages to separate the officers from the prisoners in the back seat, and a military style patrol rifle and a shotgun are mounted to the cage with electronic locks. The car has a computer and video.
Some of this is progress, but some is not. The more equipment that we give officers, the more options they have, but it is a deceptive trade off. In the old days, an officer could shoot the suspect, hit them with a wood stick, or go hands on. Those were his only options, unless he could talk the guy out of fighting. Good officers could do that.
Nowadays there are many more options for the officer, and they can control a suspect with pepper spray or a taser. The officers are much more inclined to go to a force option instead of talking, because we have taught them to go to a force option. We sometimes train them on verbal judo, but we spend much more time on defensive tactics or at the firing range.
Think about it for a second. Andy Griffith used to handle things by talking. He normally wasn’t armed, and if he was it was a Colt .38 revolver or a Winchester pump shotgun. Yeah, that was television and not reality, but the basic ideas were the same. We used to do more with less, still enforce the law, and not have near the problems we have today.
If you make officers dependent on tools, instead of their ability to communicate with people, what do you think that they will use, as a default?
The problem is that the police will not want to change their way of doing business. It’s what they are used to, what they are trained to do, and they are currently protected when they use force.
Changing the culture of police will also require changing their equipment.