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Thursday, March 10, 2016 12:07 am

Senior cops remember how policing used to be

 George Graves remembers when police officers used “wheel books,” a log of license numbers shelved at police stations, to identify whether a car had a criminal history.

Since that time, technology has not only changed the gadgets police use to perform their jobs, but also has enhanced the level of communication and professionalism in law enforcement. The implementation of body cameras in police departments across the state is just a continuation of that effort.

After an interview session conducted by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, a few police chiefs agreed to talk with Illinois Times about changes they’ve seen in technology over the years.

Graves, a former police chief from Western Springs in northern Illinois, says the essential tools needed to perform the job of a police officer in 1958 were very different from today.

“When I started out as an officer, the basic tools were a uniform, revolver, handcuffs, a squad car and a mobile radio” Graves said. “They were the basic tools to perform our duties; to patrol, protect and respond to citizen service calls.”

Graves began his career in law enforcement in 1958 when technology was limited. He remembers the predecessor to modern radar guns and when communication came directly from the police station or “base.” These tools were different from the handheld gadgets like the radar guns, mobile phones and in-car computers that are now available to officers.

“Prior to radar units, we were equipped with a calibrated speed clock that allowed an officer to pace speeding vehicles,” Graves said.  “The challenge with this mechanism was that you had to be behind the vehicle, if traffic allowed it, in order to pace the vehicle perfectly.”

Graves explained that the speed clock had to be taken in to be calibrated at least once a month. It wasn’t until the radar units came out that officers were able to efficiently pace a vehicle’s speed from the back or the front of the car.

In 1974, 16 years after Graves started his career, Joe Pena, a former police chief from Channahon, entered law enforcement. Pena has a similar account of how unsophisticated technology was when it came to communication between officers and the base.

“I remember when we had large portable radios that were almost an additional five pounds of weight on you and they only had one channel,” Pena said. “Now there are multiple channels on the portable radios and they have become smaller and sleek.”

Pena explained that back then, many of the communication devices were only of good use to officers when transmission towers were nearby and reception was good. He believes that these same challenges still apply. For example, if an officer is near a construction site, some of the construction materials may reduce the signal quality.

Fred Hayes is the current police chief for the Village of Elwood, near Joliet. Hayes started out as a police officer in Joliet in 1980. He remembers a time when word processing software on computers was advanced technology. Prior to 1990, a police department’s exposure to technology was very limited to special operations teams or investigations mostly used to conduct surveillance or wiretap operations.

“We did not have any computers, cellphones, video cameras or smart devices,” Hayes said.

Hayes highlighted the installation of in-car computer systems into squad cars as he discussed how changes in technology affected his department.

“By the mid-1990s, I saw the beginning proliferation of technology throughout law enforcement,” Hayes said. “I recall many seasoned veterans leaving the profession because they could not keep up with the job demands placed on them to use the new technology.”

Hayes says in-car computers had the most effect “out of all the technological advancements in law enforcement.” Video technology comes in second, he says.

In law enforcement, an increase in training and professionalism has been a direct result of the ongoing changes in technology. When Graves decided to become an officer, there were far fewer requirements for the job. He explained that all potential candidates needed at the time was to take a written test, a basic psychological exam, a physical exam and participate in an oral interview.

“Now there are extensive amounts of testing and training that officers have to get through before they are offered a job,” Graves said.

The list of requirements include the initial application, a background exam, a physical ability exam as a prerequisite to recruiting school, a written exam, a polygraph exam, an in-depth psychological exam, completing 460 hours of recruiting school, passing the state certification exam and working a probationary period of 12 to 18 months.

“With these standards put in place and the enhancement of technology,” Graves said, “officers have become more confident, competent and have the courage to perform their jobs on a daily basis.”  

Contact Brittany Hilderbrand at