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Flashback: Whistles, Call Boxes show history of police communication

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SEATTLE METROPOLITAN POLICE MUSEUM — Law enforcement communication is high-tech today. But in years past, getting help in a life or death situation depended on the power of an officer’s breath.

Officer Jim Ritter with the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum has much more ‘Flashback.’

“When the public sees a law enforcement officer on a laptop computer or a cell phone today, most of us don`t give it a second thought. However, if you look back on how police talked to each other back 130 years ago, it brings to light just how far police communication technology has come.”

“In the 1880`s, police officers used to communicate with each other by blowing a whistle. They would blow it anytime they needed assistance from the public or other officers in the area.”

“By 1890, The Seattle Police Department went to the Gangrel call box system. The cast iron box was mounted on telephone poles throughout the city. The officers would open the box up and inside would be a police telegraph. When the officer needed to summon a patrol wagon to haul a prisoner or other assistance, he would bring the needle all the way over to the wagon signal and press down on the lever. This would send a telegraph signal to the Gamewell punch register. This machine would be located in police headquarters and the police clerk would be able to tell, based on the ticker tape punches, which call box was needing assistance.”

“By the 1930`s police officers began driving cars. The only way they could communicate at that point and time was one-way communication over the public radio. The public could also listen to police calls. This was the modern-day version of the scanner back then.”

“After World War II the telephone became much more popular use. People would call 911, which back in those days was 'MAIN 4710' and then they would transfrom to a portable radio system and two-way radio system after World War II. These were very expensive and officers had to have special training to even operate them. The Federal Communication Commission required every police officer that used these radios to be certified and trained in their use, with severe penalties for misuse.”

“After the 1960`s, portable radios became very popular so the officers could actually leave their patrol cars in the case of an emergency.” “By 1980 everything changed. The radio frequencies were so tied up with conversation that the FCC demanded we switch to a laptop computer system, which Seattle police first installed in their cars in 1989."

"After seeing these changes in police communication it should make all of us feel better that modern day technology allows police to respond more quickly to your calls for their help. And that`s the way it was. I`m Officer Jim Ritter, and this is `Flashback.’”

If you have questions about law enforcement history, email Ofc. Ritter at smpmuseum@aol.com

To find out more about the museum, go to seametropolicemuseum.org