Technology and Law Enforcement: The Transformation of the Calgary Police Force, 1900-1940

By Bright, David | Urban History Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Technology and Law Enforcement: The Transformation of the Calgary Police Force, 1900-1940


Bright, David, Urban History Review


Abstract

As was the case in cities across North America, Calgary's police force underwent a transformation in the early twentieth century. In particular, new technologies were embraced and utilized, notably in the fields of training, communication, identification, and records. Yet while this process of modernization certainly eased the day-to-day operations of Calgary's law enforcers, it provided mixed results in increasing the rate of conviction across a wide range of offences. As such, this article offers a caution against equating modernization and professionalization, per se, with improvements in effective policing.

Resume

Au debut du XXe siecle, le service de police de Calgary subit des transformations, C l'instar d'autres villes nordamericaines. Ces transformations se manifestent surtout par l'emploi de nouvelles technologies, notamment dans les domaines touchant la formation, les communications, l'identification et les comptes rendus. Toutefois, bien que ce processus de modernisation ait facilite les activites des responsables du maintien de l'ordre de Calgary, ses resultats demeuraient mitiges si l'on tient compte de l'augmentation du taux de condamnations parmi un grand nombre d'infractions. Le present article offre une mise en garde contre l'assimilation de la modernisation et de la professionnalisation, comme telles, et l'amelioration de l'efficacite du maintien de l'ordre.

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American historian Eric Monkkonen has identified four innovative features that characterized the "new" police forces created at the end of the nineteenth century. A hierarchical organization; a shift from the judicial to the executive branch of local government; public visibility through the adoption of uniforms; and an emphasis on the active role of officers, entailing regular patrols and free prosecution of criminal offenders, all combined to modernize urban policing. "The new kind of police came as costly service innovations to American cities," Monkkonen concludes, "stingy city governments often resisting the transition specifically because of their new claim on city budgets." (1) The situation was similar in Canada, where a new sense of professionalism and the adoption of new technologies transformed the nature of municipal policing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (2) And like their American counterparts. Canadian civic administrations were keen to keep a lid on rising police costs. "The work of policing," John Weaver writes, "like all work between the 1880s and the 1920s, experienced efficiency campaigns and felt promptly the impact of technology. City councils and police commissions were cost conscious." (3)

Unlike the drive for efficiency in industry, however, cost consciousness among civic politicians did not, as Sidney Harring has noted, "reduce the numbers of officers already on the force, but it precluded the necessity of further increases." (4) In the case of Calgary--the subject of this study--the police department's greater reliance on new technologies in the 1920s actually coincided with a partial restoration of its manpower, from the wartime low of just fifty officers to more than seventy by the end of the decade. (5) Yet there is no question that the nature of police work itself, even as it remained an essentially labour-intensive occupation, underwent a substantial transformation with the combined advent of motorized patrols, electronic communications, systematic fingerprinting of suspects, and other technological innovations. What is less certain is just what impact that transformation had on the overall enforcement of law and order. Was there, for example, a significant change in the rate of conviction, and if so among which types of offences in particular? And did shifts in the patterns of conviction rates among various offences indicate new priorities when it came to law enforcement?

This article addresses these questions, using the transformation of the Calgary police force in the years 1900-1940 as a case study. …

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