The Things We Carry
The ever changing world of technology is a fascinating study. There was a time when the lead pencil was considered the height of technology. Automobiles without air conditioning which chugged along at a blazing 25 mph were the fancy of only the wealthy elite, as was propeller airplane travel. Police work has a similar evolution.
When I first got interested in police work, I got a job at the Fontainebleau-Hilton Hotel in Miami Beach as a security officer. It was 1977. It was a great job because the hotel was huge – a miniature city. During the height of tourist season, the place would be jammed with upwards of 4,000 guests, serviced by another 2,000 plus employees. It was the grand dame of Miami Beach’s elite resorts. The hotel saw fit to have a couple of Miami Beach detectives to collaborate with us. After all, the place had celebrities and upscale tourists coming in regularly and all kinds of crazy stuff happened there. One of those detectives was a retired NYPD detective named Jimmy Darienzo. Jimmy and I had some great talks. He would talk to me about his days on the force, walking a foot beat in the South Bronx. I loved listening to him. Jimmy recounted his days as a rookie foot beat and how, when you were in trouble or in a fight, you banged your wooden nightstick on the sidewalk.
“We didn’t have radios,” he recalled, “it was the early 50s. The sound of a police nightstick on the sidewalk – which was hollow underneath because of the subway and sewer systems – made a very distinct, recognizable sound. That’s the way we called for a backup.”
The story resonated with me as, just two years after that conversation, I would be venturing out onto the streets to work in one of Miami’s worst ghetto environments. But, that would be December of 1979 and, by that time, we had two-way radios and our backups were in cars. On our belts, we also had a pair of “speed loaders” which our firearms instructors in the police academy called “revolutionary.” Many times, in that wild and woolly jurisdiction, I would call for backup on some pretty hairy encounters. I thought of Jimmy Darienzo’s story often.
Besides the two-way radio, we carried the Monadnock® PR-24® in place of the old “nightstick.” We were subjected to a ton of training with the PR-24, but, in my nearly seven years of uniform patrol, I don’t recall actually using it to any great success. They were long and metal and bumped against our legs. They added weight to our already heavy belts. As such, we ended up using our hands or revolvers to control people in threatening and dangerous encounters. When we underwent Field Force (riot) training, the PR-24 was a big part of crowd confrontation scenarios. There was something that the department came up with called the “stomp-drag.” You banged the handle end of your PR-24 on your riot shield while you dragged one foot, monster-like, toward the crowd. With my PR-24 and ridiculously hot and heavy body armor, I felt like the ultimate modern cop.
Later, the PR-24 was phased out (as was the “stomp-drag”) to be replaced by the “expandable baton.” It was a much wiser choice, I thought, as it was compact and didn’t swing around on the duty belt. The baton also had this dramatic effect of expanding with a swing of the wrist. It locked in place with a metallic snap – much more intimidating than the PR-24. Ballistic body armor became slimmer and more comfortable to wear and, by this time, I was out of uniform and in homicide wearing a tie and a semiauto handgun
Alongside these developments, the law enforcement industry ushered in a new wave of modernized restraint and “less-than-lethal” devices: the RIPP™ Hobble restraint strap; “flex cuffs;” and, of course, the TASER® system. The Hobble was kind of cool in that, when used properly, you could very quickly secure someone’s legs. We thought it was funny because it was really a more dignified way of “hog-tying” someone. I don’t know whatever happened to it, though. It kind of ended up in the police attic of stuff to carry around.
By 1986 in the Miami-Dade Police Department, radio communications were also upgraded dramatically. In the “old days,” you keyed the mike on your handheld and no one knew who you were until you said your unit number. There were incidents of people “goofing off” and saying stupid things or making funny noises on the air, all anonymously. This pissed off the dispatchers to no end. Then, stuff started going digital and computer technology began to take control of the airwaves. You keyed your mike and your unit number showed up on the dispatcher’s screen. They even created an emergency button on the top of the handheld which could automatically activate a “need emergency assistance” signal to the dispatcher. It was much better in terms of safety if you were in trouble, of course, but the days of transmitting asinine stunts were over. The pranksters on our squads had to slink back into the shadows. Still, one famous transmission is legend down here and I was working that insanely quiet midnight shift to witness it. It was about 0230 and there wasn’t a call or a transmission for almost two hours, save for the dispatcher announcing the FCC required station call sign.
Someone keyed the mike and said, “I’m going f—-in’ crazy!”
The annoyed dispatcher shot back, “QSM unit!? [Identify yourself]”
After a few second’s pause, the same voice said, “I’m not that f—-in’ crazy!”
And, you heard radio applause (multiple “clicking” of mikes) go on for a good 20 seconds. The incident got everybody laughing and kept us awake that stark night and the culprit was never identified, though we had a couple of strong suspects.
Incidents like these are only good for squad room war stories in 2022, however. Law enforcement is so engaged with technology that it’s been hard for a retired guy like me to keep up. The most impactful tool is the body cam. It’s just one more thing officers are adorned with when they go out on patrol and its invention has caused much controversy – and extra work for many – in both administrative and legal circles. The body cam has created a new dimension in police/community relations, as well as new challenges for prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. Besides uniform-worn cameras, police departments big and small are incorporating drone technology into patrol and investigative efforts. This, too, has created terra incognita for the legal eagles in our departments, not to mention Fourth Amendment concerns from coast to coast. I happen to believe that drones are a great addition to police work. Like anything else, though, they need to be used responsibly or we’ll run afoul of Constitutional challenges and lose them, just like we lost certain crime prevention statutes in the late 60s and early 70s.
There is a plethora of new devices and systems being introduced into the law enforcement world. One only has to leaf through the pages of this very magazine to see how private industry has profited from the wide array of weapons, laser devices, vehicles, drones, cameras, and safety devices police departments are buying. What many in the
public don’t understand is that most of these inventions and products are designed to help
police be more efficient and to help us be more responsive to the needs of our communities. They are not – as many people believe – an effort to make police more militaristic or invasive.
Jimmy Darienzo has long since passed on, but I’d love to see what he would have thought of all this high-tech stuff cops carry around today. Someone might read this article 40 years from now and say the same thing about me. As cool and useful as all of our tech toys are, none of them make us better police officers; in fact, they complicate the job.
Being better at what we do can’t be purchased. That part is up to the human beings.
Ramesh Nyberg retired from law enforcement in November 2006 after 27 years of police work. He lives in Miami and teaches criminal justice at a local high school. He also teaches regional law enforcement courses through Training Force, USA. He enjoys getting feedback from readers and can be reached at email@example.com. Also, Ram has recently announced his newly published book, The Ten Must-Haves to Be a Great Detective, available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle eBook. You can find it by visiting https://tinyurl.com/hwc2xajm