History of Technology in Policing

Mathieu Deflem
Stephen Chicoine
University of South Carolina

Online copy of a paper published in Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, edited by Gerben Bruinsma and David Weisburd, 2014. Also available as pdf file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu and Stephen Chicoine. 2014. “History of Technology in Policing." Pp. 2269-2277 in Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, edited by Gerben Bruinsma and David Weisburd. Berlin: Springer. 

Technology has fundamentally changed the face of society, and the effects that technological advances have had on the form and function of policing is no exception. In response to the changing conditions of society brought about by new developments in technology, law enforcement agencies have in turn adopted new technological advances in order to fulfill their function in the areas of crime control and order maintenance. This has in turn lead to the historical development of the bureaucratization of law enforcement, which has transformed the police from a political enforcement apparatus to an autonomous professional institution. Technology has not only facilitated this transformation of police within their respective nations, but has also facilitated international police cooperation. The institutional autonomy and the technological advances in communications and transportation enabled international cooperation between police organizations which addressed, ironically, the new forms of crime that were enabled by those very same technological advances. Harnessing new forms of technology would become a constant theme in the efforts of international police cooperation, with new initiatives and meetings calling for the advancement of the means for law enforcement agencies of different nations to exchange information on criminals, suspects, and new means of policing.
Technological changes have occurred for the better part of a century, tracing back to, at least, the early 19th century, when police were highly connected with the political sphere and walked their beats with whistles and batons, up until the beginning of the modern era shortly after World War Two. By this time, the police had become recognizably modern, despite all the advancements that still had yet to occur in more recent decades. The changes in the institution of policing have not been limited to the means by which police pursue their goals, but has also altered the organization and goals of policing from political concerns to criminal objectives.
Fundamental Policing Technologies: Weapons and Communications
Early forms of policing bear only partial likeness to modern-day law enforcement. In terms of technology, police agents were traditionally outfitted only with a truncheon or baton and a rattle for raising the alarm (Johnson 1981; Manwaring-White 1983). These early police were largely on their own upon leaving the police station since the technologies of the time did not allow for communication between officers patrolling their beats and their command structure. As a result, officers in the police station were rarely aware of criminal situations on the streets unless a citizen lived close enough to walk to the station or until an officer returned from patrol (Johnson 1981). Due to the lack of communication technology at the time, there was also little ability to coordinate officers on patrol or to keep account of the officers' actions while on the streets. While the means of physical repression of the police have remained largely unchanged since the institutions' early inception, the means of communication and transportation have transformed the form and function of policing in rather considerable ways.
Historically police agents were armed only with a nightstick in the United States or a baton or truncheon in Europe. The adoption of firearms by police was once a contentious issue in terms of the power of the state to arm against its people, and first occurred in the United States, arguably as a result of the embedded nature of firearms in American culture (Johnson 1981). The initial standing orders given to officers prohibited the carrying of firearms while on patrol, and the public was largely opposed to arming the police (Johnson 1981). At this time during the formation of the United States, many within the US carried firearms, and conflicts amongst citizens sometimes escalated to the point that shots were regularly exchanged. The police of the time were charged with resolving such conflicts, but officers would often be shot while on duty. After several shootings of police officers had taken place, it became an informal practice amongst the police to carry a firearm despite the orders against this, and this informal practice eventually came to be institutionalized (Johnson 1981). In the US, the first agency to adopt the multi-shot pistol officially was the Texas Rangers in the 1850s, and other agencies across the nation adopted firearms shortly after (NCJ 1998). In England the firearm was adopted considerably later on, and the police there were not visibly armed until a shoot-out took place involving two anarchists in 1911 (Manwaring-White 1983).
Major advances in the history of policing and technology have taken place with respect to communications technology. Police in the 1830s relied on the rattle, whistle, or loud shout in order to alert other officers in the area to come their assistance (Stewart 1994; Johnson 1981). These police were essentially isolated while on patrol, and the police station was unable to communicate with the while they were on patrol. As a result, the station could not coordinate nor direct its officers on the streets, the officers could not report on situations on the streets until they returned, nor ask for assistance. Citizens were likewise limited in their access to police assistance unless they lived within walking distance to the station or until they could find an officer along his route. Several technological advancements were pursued and instituted in the efforts to facilitate communications between the police, the citizenry and the station.
From the late 19th century onwards, important advances in communications technology began to be adopted by the police. The first police telephones were installed in Albany, New York in 1877 and were used to connect the five districts with the mayor's office. Similarly, in the United Kingdom telephones were first used to connect police in 1880, and by 1886 the emergency phone system had connected all of the police and fire stations in Glasgow in the United Kingdom. While these earlier advances enhanced the ability of police to communicate with other stations, the mayor, and other emergency services, the police call box allowed for communications between police on patrol, citizens, and police stations.
While today the police call box has been subsumed by the widespread use of the radio and telephone, and is perhaps more recognizable as the transportation of the time-traveling Doctor in the BBC series Dr. Who, it was once a major advancement in police communication (Stewart 1994). In 1884, the first police call boxes were installed in Chicago and Boston, and in 1891 the call boxes were also adopted by the Glasgow police (Stuart 1994). Other police agencies began using the call boxes extensively during the 1890s (Johnson 1981). The call boxes served as a line of communication between beat patrols and headquarters, as well as a rallying point where citizens could call the police. Police call boxes were placed at the intersections of several police officers' patrol routes with a light at the top. This light would be turned on to alert the officers if the station needed to contact them, or they could be activated by citizens in need of police assistance. Officers could therefore be signaled from a distance, via the signal, that their attention was needed at the call box. Inside the box was a telephone for communication with the station, creating some degree of communication between the officers, the station, and the citizenry (Reiss 1992; Stuart 1994; Johnson 1981). The police call boxes increased the rapid response rate and efficiency of officers responding to emergencies and added to the efficiency of the police by reducing the number of patrolling officers needed and operational costs (Stuart 1994). Despite these advantages, the police call box would eventually become replaced by the radio, just as the police foot patrol would eventually give way to the use of the automobile (Reiss 1992).
As early as 1920 it was becoming apparent that the foot patrol method of policing was handicapped in light of the growing prevalence of the automobile (Walton 1958). The increasing size of residential areas in large cities were also beginning to strain police stations by making the costs of foot patrols prohibitive (Waltman 1958). The foot patrols of the previous century were therefore ill-suited to the new social conditions, requiring a new approach to policing. Under these conditions, police forces developed rapid-response methods with the aid of the telephone, two-way radio, and automobile. In the United States, these practices began to develop during the 1930s, with the first radio patrol car used in Detroit as early as 1929 (NCJ 1998; Reiss 1992; Battles 2010; Johnson 1981). This system of officers patrolling in automobiles, coordinated through the use of two-way radios responding to calls made by citizens, created a more efficient, effective, and responsive police force (Johnson 1981). This development was strongly connected to the specific conditions of 1930s America. In other national settings, the radio police car was not used until much later, such as the United Kingdom which did not widely adopt automobiles in policing until the 1960s (Manwaring-White 1983).
The developments in the history of police and technology have been largely influenced by the changing conditions that the new technologies created, as well as the bureaucratic drive of the police towards adopting standards of efficiency in policing. The advances in technology facilitated the development of the institutional autonomy of police institutions from politics, since the development of communications technology lead to greater reporting to headquarters and thereby created superior professional officers instead of politically loyal servants (Johnson 1981). Variable social conditions influenced the adoption of technologies among police across countries. Firearms were adopted earlier by police in the US, for instance, because they were also more prevalent amongst the population. The radio patrol car was also adopted earlier there than in the United Kingdom, which did not face the same issues in terms of geographic expansion. Finally, offenders themselves facilitated technological changes of policing by possessing firearms or driving automobiles. The response of the police has often been to adopt these technologies in the form of a criminal-law enforcement arms race. This arms race has not been confined to the character of local or national policing, but has also influenced the development of criminal identification technologies and their adoption.
Advances in Criminal Identification
In pre-modern times there was no issue in criminal identification since the size of the communities virtually ensured that everyone knew everyone else (Cole 2001). As societies expanded and geographic mobility increased due to advances in transportation technology, such as the train, it became easier for criminals to hide from their previous history by moving to a different area or even by merely adopting a different name. Problems with linking criminals to their previous convictions became particularly problematic when, during the 1850s, a movement towards harsher punishments for recidivists began (Cole 2001). Two central problems faced the courts and law enforcement officials attempting to link a suspect with a criminal past: the ability to access the information stored, and the ability to positively identify a recidivist or other suspect.
In the beginning of the 19th century, efforts in criminal identification were limited to descriptions entered in prison registers which did not contain a uniform language and were not necessarily specific enough to distinguish an inmate. Further, such records did not differentiate between individuals with the same name and had no ability to prevent the use of aliases (Cole 2001). One of the first improvements upon this system was the introduction of record-keeping technologies developed by Arnould Bonneville de Marsangy in 1844. Bonneville suggested the use of an alphabetical system to facilitate the search for inmate record and the use of index cards which could be added to and expanded without disrupting the order of the information (Cole 2001). This advance did not alleviate the problems with identifying recidivists, since criminals needed only to fabricate a false name in order to fool the system.
Other technological advances facilitated criminal identification, such as photography, anthropometry, and fingerprinting. The earliest reports of photography come from British and French police in the 1840s (Cole 2001). The first picture of a convict was taken in Brussels in 1843. Police departments began to collect these photos and in 1874 the Parisian police were the first to set up a picture collection of criminals in 1874 (Deflem 2002a). By the end of the 19th century, all major police forces had photographic identification services. The photographs themselves provided pictures to the names that convicts gave the police, but in making positive identifications it was the photograph's use in the anthropometric system that had the largest impact.
Two technologies developed around the late 19th century which would bring about drastic advances in the area of criminal identification. The first to be implemented was the Bertillonage, or anthropometry, system which categorized criminals by the measurements of their bodies (Cole 2001; Deflem 2002b; Johnson 1981). The anthropometric system was developed by Alphonse Bertillon in 1870 and was adopted by the French government in the 1880s. The anthropometric system involved specific and precise measurements of the criminal body, a written description, and two photographs, one profile and one full face, which served as the predecessor to today's mug shots. Bertillon emphasized the consistency and accuracy of these measurements and descriptions, laying out a precise process by which to take measurements and developing a specific terminology by which to describe the criminal (Cole 2001). Bertillon also developed a filing system which grouped criminals by eleven key measurements grouped into three general categories: body, head, and appendages (Johnson 1981). Bertillon's final advancement was the so-called ‘portrait parlé’ or spoken portrait, which reduced the criminal's description to a language which could be easily transmitted via telegraph or telephone (Cole 2001). As a result of the anthropometric system, a criminal's identity could be confirmed, regardless of the name they presented, by matching their bodily measurements with those on file. However, this process required a trained Bertillon operator and took several man hours to make an identification since measurements often had to be taken twice in order to make a positive identification (Cole 2001). Furthermore, as the anthropometric system spread from France and was adopted by other countries, modifications to the process and instruments led to a loss in the efficacy of the system and problems in transmitting data of the portrait parlé to the police of other nations (Cole 2001). The anthropometric system would become dominant in most nations as it was initially regarded as more scientific than fingerprinting (Cole 2001).
Fingerprint technologies were explicitly developed to develop a classification system useful for law enforcement. In 1877, Sir William J. Herschel proposed using fingerprinting for criminal identification in India and Dr. Henry Faulds came to a similar conclusion independently in 1880 (Cole 2001; Johnson 1981). Most importantly, in 1892 Sir Francis Galton published his findings that fingerprints did not change over the course of a lifetime and that each individual's fingerprints were unique (Johnson 1981; Cole 2001). This led to the incorporation of fingerprints in addition to the anthropometric system in 1894 by Scotland Yard (Johnson 1981). At the same time, Juan Vucetich in Argentina also adopted fingerprints for criminal identification (Deflem 2002a). The US was slower to adopt fingerprints, with St. Louis being the first to use them after a Scotland Yard official introduced the technique but it was not instituted widely nationally until the 1930s when J. Edgar Hoover made the FBI available for identifying fingerprints and training local officers (Johnson 1981). Similar to the portrait parlé, fingerprints were described numerically on the basis of certain specified characteristics in order to facilitate their transmission via telegraph (Deflem 2002b).
In 1899, the colonial legislature passed the Indian Evidence Act, which was the first endorsement of fingerprints as legal evidence, not only identifying criminals and recidivists, but also for finding and convicting them (Cole 2001). Originally, fingerprints were not conceived of as a forensic tool, but merely as a record-keeping system. The earliest forensic identification occurred in Europe in 1902, when Alphonse Bertillon, developer of the anthropometric system, matched a bloody fingerprint at a crime scene with a fingerprint available in a criminal file (Cole 2001). Scotland Yard began using fingerprints for forensic identification in the beginning years of the 20th century. At the time, fingerprints in the courts were faced with the same hesitancy as DNA testing later would be. The accuracy and precision of the method had to be demonstrated to the courts in oftentimes theatrical displays until the method eventually had become more solidified (Cole 2001). By the beginning of World War Two, fingerprint examiners had transformed fingerprints from a novel technique into the most credible and unassailable form of criminal identification evidence.
The anthropometric system developed by Bertillon remained dominant for several years, but eventually fingerprinting would gradually overtake this system as the primary means for identifying criminals. Fingerprinting had several advantages to the anthropometric system in that they were quicker and did not require skilled labor or specialized instruments (Cole 2001). Fingerprints were advantageous since they offered industrial-style speed, efficiency, productivity, and economy over the anthropometric system (Cole 2001). The appeal of the anthropometric system was one of quality and scientific rigor, but these arguments faded in part due to the human error involved in the measurement and description process as well as the growing confidence in fingerprints (Cole 2001). Furthermore, fingerprinting had the additional advantage  that it could be used not only for criminal identification, but for forensic identification as well. Fingerprints could not only help identify a recidivist, but help convict a criminal suspect as well.
The methods of fingerprinting and anthropometry both included an organizational classification by which they could be categorized and retrieved, addressing the early problem of accessing the information that was stored. The anthropometric system was particularly time consuming in accessing its records since two measurements had to be taken in order to effectively find a single file (Cole 2001). As the police bureaucracies grew, so did their records, and efficiently finding matching records became a steadily more daunting task. By the 1930s, the FBI had amassed the largest volume of fingerprints. However, to successfully access them and compare them required other identification information, and it still required a great deal of time to go through the records (Cole 2001). As early as the 1920s, identification bureaus began turning to automated data processing technologies such as IBM punch card sorters to handle searching the large volume of records. In the 1930s, the FBI and New York State Division of Criminal Identification began using such IBM card sorters (Cole 2001). However, these methods remained technically awkward and still required human examination of the selected cards, though they did represent an advancement in the technologies of data management which would develop drastically during the digital age.
Technologies of criminal identification initially developed as a means to identify recidivists. However, in the course of their development, one of the most well-known forms of forensic identification, fingerprinting, also came to be developed. These technologies had to be revised and expanded in view of the adaptive behavior of offenders. Attempting to avoid identification because of prior convictions, offenders would give false names to avoid the harsher penalties that were given to recidivists. This development in itself was a function of the increasing size and mobility of society, moving away from the small community wherein everyone was easily recognizable. This societal mobility, as well as the newly developed forms of criminal identification, were key elements to the growing internationalization of policing which developed to confront the growing class of criminals without borders.
Technologies of International Policing
Many characteristics of society were fundamentally changed by advances in technology, and as a result, the practice and organization of policing changed as well. In order to address the changing times, the police had to adopt new technologies in order to confront the realities of crime control. Police gained a greater level of technical superiority in the course of pursuing their organizational goals as the means of crime control developed in technical respects. This increasing technical superiority was a key factor in the development of professional police bureaucracies (Deflem 2002a). As the institution of law enforcement developed as a bureaucracy, importantly, police institutions gained autonomy from the political institutions of the state. And this autonomy facilitated the international cooperation between law enforcement organizations. Autonomy from the political sphere was a necessary prerequisite for international police cooperation since otherwise political agendas would disrupt the goal of purely criminal law enforcement. These changes in the structure of law enforcement institutions were necessary to enable international cooperation, which developed directly to address the growing connectedness across societies as a result of advances in communications and transportation technologies.
Technology was central to the development of international policing (Deflem 2002b). First, it enabled the development of autonomous and professional law enforcement agencies by contributing to the bureaucratization of law enforcement through the necessary advances in technical superiority that accompanied the adoption of new technologies. Second, advances in technology created new forms of crime and enabled the internationalization of crime since advances in transportation and communications enabled criminals to coordinate internationally as well as providing a new level of mobility between nations. The internationalization of crime provided the motivation for law enforcement agencies to collaborate with foreign counterparts, and the same technologies that enabled international criminal behavior also enabled the police to communicate and cooperate on a scale that was never before possible.
The initial efforts for international police cooperation were motivated by a period of revolutionary activity during the 1840s throughout Europe. It was widely believed by police that the internationalization of protest was aided by the technological developments since the mid-1800s (Deflem 2002b). The press and printed writings could orient public opinion and could be distributed beyond national borders. As a result, the means to publish and publications of 'subversive' groups were targeted by the police of the time. Furthermore, railway lines across Europe grew exponentially from the mid to late 19th century, thereby drastically increasing the ability of individuals to move from one nation to the next. This development was by police seen as presenting greater opportunities for political dissidents to cooperate across national boundaries in order to overthrow the state and, later, for offenders to flee from the jurisdictions in which they had committed a crime (Deflem 2002b). These threats, made possible through the printed word and railways, motivated law enforcement agencies to pursue international cooperation.
The earliest technologies to influence international policing were those that enabled the exchange of information (Deflem 2002a, 2002b). During the 1840s, Europe experienced a revolutionary period which led to the adoption of a political objective by the police who had not yet developed an institutional autonomy from the political sphere. This led to the creation of the Police Union of German States in April 1851 with the express purpose of sharing information to track down political radicals. The Police Union focused particularly on developing faster means of exchanging information. Union members held regular meetings and exchanged printed magazines with information on political opponents. Police bureaus of Vienna and Berlin, both members of the Union, would also print bulletins containing information on wanted suspects and extradited foreigners. In the late 19th century, these bulletins began to be sent across Europe. The Police Union of German States would eventually disband due to political conflicts between its member states, but later efforts to develop international police cooperation would become more successful, particularly in facilitating the spread of police technologies and the use of communication technology to exchange information.
The initial forms of information exchange among the law enforcement agencies of different nations relied on printed media that contained information and pictures of criminals and wanted suspects. This method of exchange was particularly developed amongst the political police in Europe, but it was also used for criminal purposes, and the distribution of published materials on criminals remained a favored means of information exchange throughout the 20th century (Deflem 2002b). In the 1880s, the New York City Police Department would develop a collection of photographs of international criminals which it shared with European authorities. The anthropometric, or Bertillon, system and fingerprints were the most important technological innovations to the internationalization of law enforcement.
Internationally, the same technologies of communications and transportation that facilitated international crime made not only the exchange of information amongst police possible, but also the diffusion of new means of criminal identification. In December 1989, Italian authorities coordinated an international police meeting, the International Conference of Rome for the Social Defense against the Anarchists, in order to develop a system to combat anarchism (Deflem 2002a). Although the meeting failed to develop a system to address anarchism, it did result in enhanced cooperation amongst police on certain practical matters of police technology. In particular, with the exception of the authorities from France and Britain, all of the countries agreed to introduce the portrait parlé system that was developed for the anthropometric system for the identification of criminals. The system enabled the transmission of information on criminals among nations since the system reduced the information to a series of numbers easily transmittable by telegraph or telephone (Deflem 2002b). A synthesis of technologies therefore began to be used, the method of criminal identification, its system for communication, and the technologies of communication, in order to facilitate the exchange of information among the police departments of different nations. This focus on developing better means of exchanging information among the police of various nations has remained a constant theme in the history of international policing until this day.
Criminal identification and the means of information exchange among police agencies would also be the central theme at the First International Police Congress in Monaco in 1914 (Deflem 2002a). The meeting was ineffective un developing an organization for international police cooperation, but it did include discussions and resolutions relevant to the adoption of technology by police agencies across national boundaries. The Congress discussed ways to enhance the exchange of information among police agencies of different nations, and a resolution was passed calling for the nations in attendance to grant free use of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic means of communication in regards to international criminals (Deflem 2002b). At the meeting, also, a universal system of identification including fingerprints and photos was proposed as well as an international publication containing search warrants.
Technologies of criminal identification were particularly important for the further development of international information exchange among police. The anthropometric system developed by Bertillon had spread to several other nations, but the system was not employed universally by all agencies. Police agencies in several nations augmented the system, which produced a problem in the exchange of information since the measurements and descriptions could not be relied upon to be internationally uniform (Cole 2001). Fingerprints presented the same problem with respect to the means by which the characteristics of the print were described and which fingerprints were taken. To address this problem, a so-called Distant Identification system was introduced at the Monaco Congress as a means of harmonizing the codes of different countries (Cole 2001). In 1923, at the International Police Congress in Vienna, the system was eventually adopted.
The 1923 International Police Congress in Vienna led to the development of the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC), the organization known today as Interpol. There is no better example of the role of technology in the development of international law enforcement than the ICPC (Deflem 2002a). The facilities and institutionalized means of information exchange expanded since the organization's inception, and by 1934 the ICPC headquarters located in Vienna included specialized divisions on fingerprints and photographs, the falsification of currencies and other documents, and various other forms of information on suspects and convicts. The ICPC also established systems of technologically advanced means for international communication, including a telegraphic code, a system of radio communications, and printed publications in addition to meetings. In addition to a strong focus on the most efficient use of new technologies, the ICPC was primarily preoccupied with a new growing class of offenders that committed crimes that were intrinsically made possible by technological advances, such as train robberies and hotel theft. Other international police initiatives would similarly focus on the use of new technologies to carry out the function of crime control, including international conferences as well as international exchanges of information between law enforcement agencies regarding methods of policing.
Technology remains a central focus in the organization and practices of policing. In large part, the increasing reliance on technology by police is the product of the way society at large has changed as a result of technological advancements. Modern society has expanded and become more interconnected, producing a new context within which law enforcement must operate. In part, these changes in addition to old challenges have motivated the adoption of new technology by police. These advancements have also facilitated international cooperation amongst law enforcement, with technologies enhancing the institutional autonomy needed for police agencies to cooperate across national borders. These technologies include not only advances in communication and transportation methods, but also pertain to the means of criminal identification which evolved into various forms that can be communicated among police of different jurisdictions. Technological advancements have not only provided police the tools by which to engage in collaboration, they have also provided an impetus for police collaboration by influencing the internationalization of crime.
The means of communication among police regionally and internationally, the means of criminal identification, and the means of transportation have been central to the transformation of policing. These advancements began as steps towards addressing the everyday issues in policing. What was once the lone patrolman armed with a whistle and baton, walking his beat without oversight or coordination and often strongly connected with political power, has become a professional police institution that endeavors to achieve its goal of crime control efficiently. Thus developed a police that organizes patrol with automobiles and two-way radios, and that relies on identification methods using photographs and fingerprints and can share information across jurisdictions with the use of telegraphs, telephones, and mail. Changes in the means of policing have also directly addressed technologically-enabled changes in society, specifically the growing societal mobility which made individuals harder to identify, the larger geographic space which made beat patrols cost prohibitive and ineffective, and the inability of the early police to coordinate their actions. Since that time, even more advancements in technology have further changed the institution of law enforcement. Undoubtedly, policing will continue to adapt to the changing circumstances that are brought about by technological advancements.

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  • Cole, Simon A. 2001. Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. 2002a. “Technology and the Internationalization ofPolicing: A Comparative-Historical Perspective.” Justice Quarterly 19(3): 453-475.
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  • Reiss, AJ Jr. 1992. “Police Organization in the Twentieth Century.” Crime and Justice 15: 51-97.
  • Stewart, R. W. 1994. “The Police Signal Box: A 100 Year History.” Engineering Science and Education Journal 3(4): 161-168.
  • Walton, Frank E. 1958. “'Selective Distribution' of police patrol force, history, current practices, recommendations.” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 49(2): 165-171. 

See also my related papers on the history of international policing and my book Policing World Society.