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Police Commissioner William P. Rutledge,
police radio pioneer and visionary
police radio station W8FS on Belle
Island, 1928. The
call sign was later
changed to WCK.
Two more views of WCK on Belle
Island, Michigan, 1932. On
the left, Federal Radio Commission inspector
M. W. Grinnell checks the operation of the transmitter.
Radio receiver installed on the seat
back of a Detroit
A police radio receiver installed the
trunk of a Baltimore
patrol car, 1933.
Milwaukee Police Department received its
first group of police band radio receivers in November, 1930. Here, Stanley Hubbard of
the Western Radio
Engineering Co. in St. Paul, Minnesota, shows the details of the new
purchasing agent Joseph Nicholson.
was also owner of broadcasting station
KSTP in St. Paul.
Edward Holm of the Milwaukee Police
Department inspects his department’s new police band transmitter. At right is H. R. Skifter
of the Western
Radio Engineering Co., which supplied the equipment.
W. J. Wiseman is at the controls of the
Milwaukee Police Department’s radio dispatching console, 1936.
W1XAO in Boston – the first two-way police
Policing in America
before the 1920s was an entirely
different process than it is today.
main work was done by the beat policeman, who wandered his assigned
neighborhood on foot. If
he needed to
communicate with his precinct officer, he used a street corner police
bells or sirens at
precinct stations were used to notify the beat policemen to call in. In 1920, to speed up the
process, the Pennsylvania
State Police initiated a cumbersome system of phoning people along
routes - they would put a flag in their window, so that officer would
flag and know to phone headquarters. But
after prohibition was enacted, these methods were wholly inadequate. Bootleggers and other
criminals with fast
automobiles could strike a target and be gone before the foot patrolmen
time to react. To
combat the dramatic
upsurge in crime, the police also needed automobiles, and so the first
cars were born.
the use of automobiles by the police was not enough.
Officers in patrol cars were dispatched to
the scene of a crime, and when they completed their tasks they returned
to await another assignment. Further,
was no way for headquarters to communicate with the officers once they
more enhancement was
needed, and that important tool was radio.
Detroit Police Department, led by the visionary police
commissioner William P. Rutledge, was the first to seriously experiment
radio receivers in patrol cars, beginning in 1922 with the licensing of
radio station, KOP. But,
emerging technology of radio held obvious promise as a means of
were still many shortcomings in its fledgling years that prevented its
use in vehicles. Ignition noise was one
problem, and the jarring
movement of the vehicles over Detroit’s bumpy streets detuned receivers
knocked the delicate tubes out of their sockets.
Further, the high filament currents of those
early tubes required dedicated radio batteries, installed on the
boards, and they needed to be re-charged every four hours. Signals from the
transmitters faded out under bridges and among tall buildings. Radios were sometimes found
to have been
retuned by the patrolmen to other stations so they could listen to ball
games. If those
problems weren’t daunting enough, the
Commerce Department had licensed KOP as a broadcasting station, and
insisted the station transmit entertainment between the police calls. Commissioner Rutledge
complained, “Do we have
to play a violin solo before we dispatch the police to catch a
The Detroit P.D. put
together three special radio-equipped
police cruisers with radio receivers mounted on the rear of the front
seat. They had
windshields and shotgun mounts. But
while they had some successes, the receivers could not be made to be
Rutledge abandoned the department’s radio program and closed station
1927. However, two
officers who were
also radio amateurs pleaded with Rutledge to give them a chance at
reliable receiver, and he agreed to allow them to experiment. A year later, Kenneth Cox
and Robert L. Batts
had come up with a new, stable receiver design of their own manufacture.
The Detroit Police
Department reactivated its radio program
in 1928, and this time with much better results.
The Cox/Batts receivers were hand-built by
the police radio staff and installed in several dozen vehicles. The six-tube circuit was
constructed on a
steel chassis, tuned to the police frequency and then padlocked into a
officers could adjust the
volume but not the frequency. Dedicated
6 volt batteries ran the receivers, and oversized alternators in the
them charged. In
the event of a failure,
a radio shop vehicle could meet the patrol car in the field and swap
a few minutes.
new police radio station, WCK, was constructed on Belle
Island, away from Detroit’s tall buildings. Operating
on 3166 kHz, far away from the AM
broadcast band, it delivered much better results and was soon operating
hours a day. WCK broadcast a test every
half hour so each
patrol squad could verify their receiver’s working condition.
time, Detroit was enjoying great success with its
police radio system. In
fifteen months of experience, WCK had transmitted over 15,000 messages,
resulting in 800 arrests. “Radio
magazine reported that “burglars have been trapped in homes they were
Bandits have been captured or killed as they fled from hold-ups. Hit
drivers have been overtaken, arrested and returned to the scene where
hapless victims lying in the street.”
1930, Detroit was operating a fleet of forty radio cars. There were fast
seven-passenger cruisers with
a fully armed crew of four, and lighter scout cars with two officers. That year, Police
Commissioner Rutledge told
“Radio News” magazine: “We
almost instant communication with every man in a radio-equipped car
the city. Two and a
half seconds after
an alarm reaches headquarters, it is flowing through the air to radio
cars. All of them
get the message, and
regard the use of
radio by the police as one of the greatest developments of police work,
give due consideration to the scientific laboratory and fingerprint
which play such an important part in our work today.
… I believe that it will eventually be
possible to communicate with every man in a police department directly
was not the only city experimenting with radio at
the time. In 1927,
State Police also opened a broadcast station, WBAK in Harrisburg. It broadcast a combination
and police bulletins, but was only on the air part of each day, sharing
its frequency with another broadcast station at Pennsylvania State
College. The State
Police also operated
a network of fixed radio telegraph stations around the state for the
of information between offices.
a number of cities, local broadcast stations made
arrangements with their police departments to transmit bulletins in
their regular programming. WGN
Chicago, WNYC in New York, and KJBS in San Francisco were three of the
active stations doing this. At
Announcer Pat Barnes would interrupt the station’s evening programs at
moment with a “Squads Attention!” announcement.
Some nights saw a dozen calls.
But this method of communication proved
cumbersome, and ultimately was unsuccessful.
The interruptions to the regular programs annoyed
listeners, and sent
rubbernecking spectators rushing to the scene of a crime, sometimes
before the police themselves. And
broadcasts often alerted the criminals themselves.
In one case, WGN broadcasts the alert of a
robber looting an apartment. Police
arrive to find it empty, a radio playing away, and a note saying: “Dear Radio man: Thanks for the tip-off. You’re a swell announcer. I’m signing off now.” One department
tried to avoid this problem by
sending messages in code, utilizing an early phonetic alphabet scheme: i.e. “Brazil
Sugar Preferred, Whales, Ships,
solution to the police radio dilemma was obvious, as
demonstrated in Detroit: there
be dedicated police radio stations, outside of the regular broadcast
band. Finally, in
1930, the Federal Radio
Commission got the message and dedicated eight channels in the 1712 to
range for a special shortwave police radio service.
Powers were to vary from 50 to 500 watts,
depending on the size of the city.
Nearby communities were to share the same frequency,
frequency congestion and also allowed dispatchers to hear reports from
F.R.C.’s action opened the floodgates, and the applications
for new police radio transmitters poured in.
By 1933, there were 123 radio stations licensed or
under construction, with
Detroit serving as the model for many of these community systems. Patrolman Cox was sent to
Chicago to install three
transmitters and 142 vehicle receivers, while Batts went to
help with another installation. Dozens
of cities came on line simultaneously:
the city of Berkeley installed receivers in every
police vehicle; Pasadena
put 9 cars into operation; Seattle had 10 cars and planned 25; Tulare,
California, put six cars into operation using headphones instead of
loudspeaker. Cincinnati made plans for installations in in 150 police
fire vehicles, 34 fire stations and 12 police stations; Beaumont,
a station for its 8 police cars plus its fire and water departments;
police asked its city council to fund a system with 20 cars.
of the more elaborate system built-outs was in New York
main transmitter, WPEG, broadcast
with 500-watts from the Manhattan headquarters, and there were two
400 watt transmitters, WPEF and WPEE, on same frequency in The Bronx
synchronized, but transmitted about 125 calls a day in rotation from
dispatcher’s microphone. He
from a large circular desk which had a map of the city under glass. Markers were placed on the
glass to denote the
location of the patrol vehicles.
1932, 50 cities responded to a survey requesting
information about the effectiveness of their police radio systems. For the month of April,
they reported a total
of 155,000 calls to 2,255 equipped patrol cars, resulting in 12,600
$386,000 worth of stolen property recovered.
these early police radio systems were quickly proving
their worth, there were still shortcomings.
Interference between stations on the shortwave
frequencies became a
problem, especially at night. A
car in Boston received a call to “go to Lorenzo Street to break up a
game”. Not knowing
of a street with that
name, they inquired and discovered they were picking up a police call
Alameda, California, police department.
Also, there were still problems with criminals and
the general public
“listening in” on the police broadcasts once home receiver
started adding police bands to their radios.
further problem was that police radio transmissions until
this time were all just one-way. The only means for a patrol car to
back to headquarters was from a telephone or call box, and they had no
them to communicate with officers in other vehicles responding to the
same call. So it
was only a matter of time before
experiments in two-way police communication would be undertaken. The first two-way system
was tested in
Bayonne, NJ, in 1933, and Detroit followed a few months later. The radio equipment filled
the trunk of a
vehicle and required a battery change at the end of each shift. Meanwhile, also in 1933, the
Illinois, police department experimented with higher frequencies on its
W9XB, operated on 41 MHz with 40 watts.
In 1933, the F.C.C. formally authorized a new public
service band for
two-way police and emergency communications, with AM systems operating
“Ultra Shortwave” range of 30.58 to 39.9 MHz.
radio systems continued to expand and improve at a
rapid pace in the late 1930s, utilizing both the old one-way band and
two-way band. More
than 2,000 municipal
and state police forces were operating their own radio systems in 1937. Cleveland added a
radio-equipped blimp in the
air in 1936, to help direct traffic flow.
In 1939, Washington, DC, police had a fleet of fifty
equipment for these
was installed in two shock-mounted waterproof steel boxes mounted on
of rear wheel.
as the market for police radio equipment
mushroomed, very few manufacturers had entered the field. General Electric was an
early supplier of
mobile AM two-way radio equipment, but abandoned the market at the
World War II. Taking
its place as the
predominant supplier of police radio systems was the Galvin
with their Motorola products. Paul
Galvin and Elmer Wavering had been among the first to market consumer
automobile radios, and so they had a good understanding of the special
vehicle-equipped radio systems. Galvin
Dan Noble as the chief of Research and Development, who developed the
two-way FM radio system for the Connecticut State Police in 1938. In 1939, the Joliet and
Illinois, police departments converted to FM in the 35-39 MHz range. By 1940, most police radio
converted to FM using Motorola equipment.
In 1939, Elmer Wavering becomes the head of the
company’s police radio
department, and the company went on to dominate the market for police
equipment for many decades afterwards.
1949, the F.C.C. updated its Public Safety radio rules,
and authorized new frequencies in the VHF and UHF bands. They quickly became the
frequencies of choice
for police systems around the country, although the old shortwave
to be used in some locations.
outside a vehicle still was only a dream, but it
had always been on the mind of Chief Rutledge, the police radio pioneer. In 1936, he wrote, “The
time will come when
every individual policeman on the beat will be equipped with a small
receiver and be directed by radio orders.”
His dream became a reality in 1940, when patrolmen
in Atlantic City
began carrying small belt radio receivers.
Police work had now come full circle, and radio was
now in the hands of
the beat patrolman, foretelling the development of the handheld radio
modern era of police
radio communications had arrived.
Broadcasting By Timothy P. Portzline,
- Guns of Outlaws: Weapons of the American Bad
Man by Gerry
- “Communications Weapon Trumps Firepower”, page 252
- Wireless Horizon:
Strategy and Competition in the Worldwide Mobile
Marketplace, by Dan
John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader
History of the Police Car”
- Federal Radio Commission Annual Reports
- Federal Radio Commission “Radio Service Bulletins”
- “Popular Science Monthly” Magazine. November 1930. “Radio Aids Police in
Swift Arrest of
- “Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology”, Vol. 33
and Present Trend of
Police Radio Communication” by Joseph A. Poli
- “Popular Radio” magazine – February, 1926. “Battling
- “Radio Digest” Magazine, September 1923. “Station KOP Aids Michigan
- “Radio News” Magazine, Feb. 1930 pg. 716. “Cops Don
- “Radio News” Magazine, Aug 1939 pg. 44. “Nation’s Capital Adopts
- “Radio News” Magazine, July 1929, pg. 13 – “Squads
– Radio Enlists in Chicago’s War on Crime”
- “Radio News” Magazine, Nov. 1929, pg. 400 – “Police
- “Radio News” Magazine, March 1930, pg. 826 – “A New
- “Radio News” Magazine, Aug 1930 pg. 136 - “Manhunts
- “Radio News” Magazine, August 1932, pg. 71 –
- “Radio News” Magazine, December 1936, pg. 344 –
Radio Now Up in the Air”
- “Western Electric Pickups” Magazine, July 1939.
Radio, Kansas City, MO”
- “Western Electric Pickups” Magazine, Oct 1939, pg. 21
“Police Radio, St. Louis, MO”
- “RCA Broadcast News” – Aug 1932, pg. 38 – “The
Police Radio System”.
- “RCA Broadcast News” –April 1932, pg. 14 – “The St.
- “Chronology of Police Radio” – Lt. Harry Blesy. http://rfpd.tripod.com/id18.html.
NOTE: This article first appeared in the
July, 2018 edition of the Spectrum Monitor magazine (Vol. 5, No. 7)