Friday, June 17, 2022

Calling All Cars! Calling all Cars!

Was this expression ever part of police radio dispatch lexicon?  Many think so.  However, Gerald Morris, Superintendent for the NYPD in 1937 described it this way:

Calling all cars!
“The dispatcher at the transmitter is the announcer.  He faces the microphone and it falls upon him to broadcast the signals to the men in the patrol cars. Entering the room, it will be very quiet.  No commotion, no yelling, in fact none of this hocus pocus of ‘Calling All Cars’ you see in the movies.  No police officer in any radio room ever uses the expression ‘Calling All Cars’.   It would only be a waste of time to say ‘Calling’. The cars know we’re calling them without being told. We just say, ‘Car 1211’ or ‘All Cars’.

We’ve all heard this phrase, and assumed that was used in the early days of dispatching patrol cars.   It origins perhaps is based from an old radio program, as well as movies and later television.

From 1933 to 1937, there was an early radio broadcast show called “Calling All Cars” [sort of like a Dragnet broadcast].  Each episode began with a simulated radio dispatch call that was introduced by a LA Police officer.  The show was a production of a true crime story of the day, describing the crime, telling how the crime was solved and how justice was served.

Early Police Dispatching
At the turn of the 20th century, a policeman on beat would use a telephone call box on the
Police Call Box
street to call headquarters for assignments or for backup if needed. [Sometimes whistles were used to alert colleagues in the nearby area].

This period also saw the emergence of the automobile, the automobile significantly changed how police conducted their operations, but also made contact with headquarters challenging.  In many places, the only way to communicate with headquarters was to install a lamp on a pole or building near a downtown area to signal officers. A roving patrol car would periodically drive by to check the status of the lamp. If the lamp was on, they would stop and call headquarters using a telephone call box.

Within 20 years, the radio too became a powerful weapon against crime.  Detroit first started using radio in 1927. By the mid 1930s, most large US municipal police departments were using radio for police work while many smaller communities were ultimately planning their own systems.

Radio changed things – while it took 20 minutes or more for an officer to respond to a call using the call box system, the radio reduced this to about 45 seconds [Thomas Rochester, NYPD radio engineer].  The automobile and the radio forever changed how law enforcement conducted operations.  In a 1990’s study, it was shown that police officers valued their radio more than they valued their service revolver.

Commercial broadcast radio first surfaced in 1920, with KDKA in Philly being the first to enter.  Broadcast saw incredible growth in the 1920s, and it didn’t take long before law enforcement officials saw its possibilities to fight crime.

During these early days of broadcast radio, some police departments used this medium to alert patrol officers of crimes in progress. The commercial broadcaster would periodically interrupt their regular entertainment programming to transmit urgent messages to officers on patrol.

Although this method was effective, mixing police emergency messages during a broadcast created problems for the police. People listening to the police broadcast showed up at crime scene - sometimes before the police did.  Of course, some criminals also listened police broadcasts to assist in evading police.

The City of Detroit spent nearly the 1920s decade working on radio problems. The early systems were one-way radio – a dispatcher transmitting messages to vehicles on patrol. Vehicles could not communicate back. However, in 1932 the City of Bayonne, NJ was the first US police department to install transmitters in their patrol cars thus having two-way communications.

First Use of Radio for Law Enforcement
Just a few short years earlier in 1901, Marconi transmitted his first transatlantic wireless message using Morse code – the letter “S”.  Marconi and early wireless exploration focused on ship to shore communications. By 1907, ships were beginning to install wireless sets on their ships. Cargo and passenger shipping companies saw this wireless telegraphy was not only essential assisting in the prevention of sea catastrophes, but also to help in sea rescues. Wireless telegraphy was also used to provide ship travellers with daily news. 

Ultimately, the Titanic [1912] proved that wireless communication was critical to shipping and all ships thereafter were required to have wireless telegraphy.

Hawley Crippen
It appears that the first use of radio in law enforcement for catching a criminal occurred in 1910.  Hawley Crippen, a Michigan doctor, murdered his wife while living in England.  Police caught him after finding out by wireless telegraph that he was on a boat heading back to the US with his girl friend that was dressed like a boy. The ship’s Captain, bound for New York, saw a newspaper article about them, became suspicious after seeing a “father and son” holding hands on the deck. The Captain used his shipboard Marconi wireless telegraph set to transmit his suspicions to the home office. The home office, in turn, reported to the police who then arrested Crippen and his girl friend in Quebec. 

The press was also alerted [by leaks] and the public was able to follow Crippen’s activities throughout journey through press reports, as it took several weeks for the ship to traverse the Atlantic.  The Captain even made friends with the Doctor and his companion, making several reports of their encounters using his shipboard wireless set.  Many consider this the first tabloid type drama, as the public was fascinated with this story because of the gruesome event and the ongoing Captain’s reports; kind of the precursor to today’s TV broadcast sensualizing the news event while it happens.
Cora Crippen

The story got lots of internationally attention and was considered a very important event for the upsurge of Marconi’s wireless technology.

Crippen’s wife, Cora, was an ambitious performer and opera singer, and used her sexual
attractions to advance her theatrical and singing career.  Cora mysteriously disappeared and Crippen told friends that she had gone back to the United States, had taken ill and died. He then foolishly invited his secret lover to move in with him.  It was thought that Cora probably had been murdered, dismembered; some say fileted, and then burned. Parts of the body were found. Crippen was arrested, then tried in a London court and was later hanged.  In recent times, with DNA testing, it appears that Crippen may not have murdered Cora.