Calling All Cars, Calling All Cars: Technological Innovations of the Chicago Police Department

By Scott, Cord A. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Calling All Cars, Calling All Cars: Technological Innovations of the Chicago Police Department


Scott, Cord A., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


(E)ach District, could notify each other and then the gong would be sounded from each box through out the whole city through this it could be hard for any criminal to escape arrest(.) (E)very day that passes this method can be used(.) (B)eside this it would be the means of keeping all Policemen on the alert at all times because if he is traveling his post faithfully he will here [sic] the gong in ten or fifteen minutes(.) (H)e will call at the box and ask the operator what is the trouble who will inform him what the nature of the case is. ...1

Throughout history, the need for a quick response has been one of the necessary requirements of any police department. The perception held by citizens and the popular press during the 1800s was that "The West" (the American frontier) was full of dangerous outlaws who were hell bent on mayhem and destruction. However, American cities of the nineteenth century were seen as bastions of culture and refinement. The expansion of cities, however, was often unchecked and this caused the need for organized police forces that would be charged with maintaining order. This formation of formal police departments came after several riots occurred in major cities throughout the United States in the early and middle 1840s. Police departments developed much as did the cities themselves; they were initially chaotic and were formed in fits and spurts, cobbled together with new policing methods and with new technologies, often when they were either available or necessary.

Chicago's police department was innovative in that the city was the first in the nation to establish a communications system that would allow the police to respond to any emergency much faster than previously. The new communications system was also used as a rationale for limiting the size of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). By utilizing new technologies the police department could be kept at a smaller size than comparable cities. Technology would also allow officers to work smarter, rather than harder.

During the late 1800s, Chicago was seen by its own boosters and by many other prominent citizens as the "City of the Century" because of its tremendous growth and innovative architecture.2 Chicago's founding fathers saw their city as a model for other metropolitan areas. According to Police lieutenant Edward Steele, the leaders of the city thought they could show the world how efficiency and technology could be used to create a police force that could respond faster to emergencies, and could do so with fewer personnel. The creation of a signal service or the purchase of vehicles was not always for better or greater safety but were, in several cases, implemented for the perception of innovation that it would bestow upon the city. The race for technology was done to show that Chicago had the ability to win.

Chicago was the first city to incorporate a police alarm system, which served as a model for other cities; the purchase and use of police cars in the early 1900s was done out of a need to compete with surrounding cities. The Chicago police were very careful to "keep up with the Joneses" so that the public would have a positive perception of the department.

The development of the CPD makes an interesting case study because several ideas that originally flourished there later fell out of favor. The advances of the CPD also went hand-in-hand with the physical growth of the city. As paved roads, the telegraph, telephone lines, gaslights, and electric lines caused the city to change, so did the CPD. The infrastructure of any city influences its growth, and the rapid growth of Chicago's systems certainly impacted its police force.

Chicago, like most towns and cities throughout the United States, had some kind of law enforcement from its inception. In Chicago, this initially took the form of a military presence. Also similar to other urban areas, the original units were small. In fact, Chicago at the time of incorporation (1837) had a "police force" of one. …

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