Mimesis Law
27 April 2017

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.

10 Comments on this post.

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  • Eva
    31 May 2016 at 11:08 am - Reply

    Years ago I was in the kitchen making dinner and I heard this noise. I thought it was the television television but my television wasnt on. I heard a woman screaming and it was in front of my house on the street. A man was tossing a girl around by her hair. I went out my front door and hid by a bush to check and make absolutely certain the man did not have a gun. When I saw he did not have a gun I got out from that bush and told him “You let go of that girl right now!” He immediately but go of that girl and she ran down the street. He collapsed on the sidewalk with his head in his hands crying. He told me something about the girl being his child and remembering when she was a baby. I got my next-door neighbors teenage child to help me try locate his daughter. We handled the situation without cops without guns. I have no previous training in such matters but it worked.
    If an average citizen such as myself can attend to a volatile situation without a gun then I believe a well trained police officer with average communication skills can do the same without the need for extreme measures or unnessary over-reaction caused by fear.

  • jdgalt
    31 May 2016 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    Police equipment may have worsened the problem, but it didn’t cause it. The problem is that, ever since about the Nixon administration and its war on drugs, police management have considered their departments to be at war with all or most of the civil population, rather than working for them; and they intentionally select for that mindset when recruiting.

    Police jobs, of course, have always been very attractive to the kind of person who wants to bully people and beat them up. But before the Sixties, nearly all police departments were run by Andy Griffith types, kindly managers who made a strong effort never to hire those natural bullies, and to purge any that did get hired. But the war on drugs reversed that policy and gave us the culture they have now. And with every Ferguson and Baltimore, that culture gets worse and they see it as more necessary and more justified. Pretty soon we’ll be a complete police state, just like any country in Latin America 50 years ago, and there’ll be no going back.

    The one thing that will stop it is to strip police of all immunity and give ordinary people the right to prosecute crimes done them, so that bully cops can go to prison. Which requires constitutional change. It’s time to demand it at the ballot box before we’re down to only the fourth box to get our freedom back.

    • Greg Prickett
      31 May 2016 at 6:56 pm - Reply

      “Police jobs, of course, have always been very attractive to the kind of person who wants to bully people and beat them up.”

      That’s BS. Very few of the officers I knew wanted to get into fights. Most would go out of their way to avoid them, and to talk the suspect out of fighting us. It was for simple reasons, too. The suspects were normally younger, faster, and stronger than us, and we bruised easily.

      • maz
        1 June 2016 at 2:25 pm - Reply

        We accept certain jobs may be of particular interest to pedophiles, and it’s not unheard of for firemen to be arsonists: Why should it be surprising for a profession that bestows extraordinary powers and abilities over the general populace to attract those most interested in abusing those powers? Concerns over police misbehavior were commonplace enough two thousand years ago that Juvenal could use it as a metaphor; I have no doubt they predate writing itself and probably lag the invention of policing by minutes.

        I realize your “That’s BS” comment was pure knee-jerk, a response to the claim you assumed jdgalt would make, rather than the one he or she actually made. (Frankly, I’m much more inclined to call BS on the following sentence, describing a halcyon period of American law enforcement that bears little resemblance to, say, the LAPD or many Southern police departments at the time.) Unfortunately, it seems of a piece with law enforcement’s all-too-often response to *any* criticism: Simply deny the problem exists, no matter how ridiculous it makes one sound.

        Or at least the *potential* for a problem exists — and, as jdgalt says, our collective success in addressing this potential problem has varied over the years.
        However, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.’ I’m glad you worked with seemingly fair, open-minded officers — but, if so, it owed more to your department’s hiring practices, internal code of conduct, disciplinary philosophy, and reputation than to the position of policeman not being naturally attractive to sadists, sociopaths, and criminals.

      • rob
        2 June 2016 at 10:08 am - Reply

        I’ve been reading your posts for a while and I’m still not sure if you actually believe the things you write or if this is all some extended pro-cop troll.

        Of course there are cops out there looking for any excuse to kick some ass. Not keeping this in mind should you find yourself interacting with one is downright dangerous.

  • brad
    31 May 2016 at 3:22 pm - Reply

    od that this article never used the M-word

    (militarization)

    • Greg Prickett
      31 May 2016 at 6:57 pm - Reply

      The police are over-militarized, but this was focusing on a different part of the issue.

  • OldCop
    31 May 2016 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    Interesting, I did a presentation a few months ago on changes in law enforcement over the last 38 years. The audience was a group of deputies, most of whom weren’t born when I went through the academy.

    There was amazement that we only had one department on the radio (no inter-agency except using a scanner to cross talk) and no walkie-talkies. So if you were away from your car you were on your own.

    However with backup a long way off and limited communications you used your wits and talked a lot more. De-escalation was they way good cops made it though tough situations.

    • Greg Prickett
      31 May 2016 at 7:04 pm - Reply

      The huge brick we carried that the admin types claimed was a walkie-talkie never worked when you needed it to. You either talked your way out of a fight or you won. Those were the only two options.

      The radio we had did have 12 channels, one for each of the 6 patrol divisions, one each for traffic, Tactical, NCIC checks, car-to-car, investigations, and special events.

  • Richard G. Kopf
    1 June 2016 at 8:06 am - Reply

    Greg,

    Fascinating post. As you know, there is a psychological term called “anchoring.” That is, most people will default to an established norm even when that norm is nuts in a given situation.

    So, I suppose, if every patrol officer looks like a swat team member most patrol cops will naturally default to swat team behavior even though such behavior is inappropriate to a given situation. Or more simply stated, you are what you eat (or wear).

    Thanks again.

    RGK