Police Tech: The Atari, The Polaroid, and Grown Men Crying

I’m not old.  I’m not.  I listen to modern rock.  I can operate a smart phone.  I realize Lady Gaga is not Lady Godiva although each has been known to show a lot of skin.  I’ve been alive for 40 years.  I’m not old.

The other night, my wife and I were sitting – and not being old – on the couch, and we were talking about the new camera we recently purchased.  It’s a nice Cannon digital with wonderful features and the latest technological advances.  My wife, looking at the instruction manual, threw out a few photography terms and appeared shocked when I was obviously familiar with terms like “F-Stop” and “aperture”.  I explained that as a police officer and federal agent, I had been trained on basic crime scene forensics and evidence collection and had practiced both of those things in my career.  Of course, I went on to clarify that I had been trained on, and used, an actual 35mm camera which used real film, as well as Polaroid Instant Cameras.  It was at that point, my vision of youthfulness started to come apart at the seams.

Paging Officer Smith… Paging Officer Smith

I became a cop in 1997.  To me, that doesn’t seem that long ago.  Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains are not old bands, right?  That was the end of the grunge era and we were beginning to shed our flannel and ditch hemp bracelets.  The next century was calling.  However, if the next century wanted to reach me it would have to do so through my pager.  But by 1999 I think I had an analog cell phone slightly smaller than what Michael Douglass carried in Wall Street.  The thing was so big, I really didn’t need a handgun on patrol – I could simply throw the giant Nokia at a suspect and impale the perpetrator on the protruding antenna.

So… maybe 1997 was a while ago and perhaps the technology I used in my work has changed a bit.  As a still-not-saying-I’m-old crime fiction writer, I suppose I can’t completely rely on my training and experience when it comes to such matters.  To stay current, I have to do some research and talk to people who are still on the job.

I want to take a moment to explore some of the changes that have occurred in police technology and how they can affect all of us.  The starkest contrast can be seen with equipment when we compare what I witnessed in 1997 compared to what some law enforcement agencies have today.

Let us begin…

The Brick



Look at this nice portable radio.


It’s lightweight, easily held, and I bet the battery life is outstanding.  Attach a little shoulder microphone on it and you could jump out of a car and be in pursuit of a suspect in no time at all.  How adorable.


I had some difficulty finding images of what I used in 1997 (I think mine was the third from the right), but my face lit up when I found one on a website. Then, I really looked at the website name – cryptomuseum.com.  That’s right.  Museum.  As in… old.

radios - old

I distinctly remember getting issued the cumbersome Motorola Saber when I completed my police academy at the end of 1997.  The thing was gigantic and officers had to insert the radio into a docking station located in the patrol car in order to keep the battery charged.  So, each time an officer got out of the car, he or she had to eject the radio and try to holster the bulky brick which was a clumsy, time-consuming process.  I was relieved when I went to the Secret Service in 2000, because I knew I would never see that thing again.  In fact, at the Secret Service academy, they showed my class a Powerpoint presentation with pictures of types of radios that had been used by the agency over the years.  One of the pictures was of the massive Motorola Saber I knew all-too-well and the instructor said, “This is an old model which you will never see.”

Upon graduation from the Secret Service academy, I was once again issued the same old Motorola Saber and used it for several more years.

 Turn the Page, Siri!



Oh, the choices of the modern-day!

 basic GPS
GPS on laptop

 GPS devices are everywhere and may be installed on a dashboard or even on a police laptop capable of running license plates or checking to see if an individual is wanted.  The GPS can be voice-enabled and guide you right to the front door of a house or business.  You simply input a location and off you go!  Not to mention, it’s nice that GPS is now standard with Smartphones (although I have a hate-hate relationship with Siri).  This is slightly different from what I used on the street.


CC map book


Ahhh… note the sharp graphics and the clear display.  No glare issues with this puppy.  This baby came complete with an 5-point font size index that included grid coordinates and it could clearly indicate if you were about to drive into a blue section of the county which meant a body of water.  These were great to use while trying to respond to an emergency at 3 AM.  There is nothing like having to stop your car on the side of the road and reorient yourself because you now realize you are not in the C-7 portion of the map.  I do have to admit the voice features were shaky and not once did it respond to me when I said, “Come on you son of a *%#!@, where is Bumpkin Way?”

 Shocking Advances



“Don’t Tase me bro!”  It has a certain ring to it and we got to hear it repeatedly in 2007 when this happened: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bVa6jn4rpE

These days, Tasers are commonplace in law enforcement.  These devices are electroshock weapons that incapacitate a suspect when dart-like electrodes strike a body and cause muscles to involuntarily contract.  When properly used, they are accurate and effective and they have been linked to a drop in officer injuries.  As with any non-lethal weapons, there are still some risks involved.  However, by using this device on a non-compliant suspect, there is less chance of anyone receiving a permanent injury than if direct contact force is used.


Other than an ASP extendable baton, we carried a form of pepper spray called Capstun.  Capstun was an effective tool, but had some limitations.  One huge limitation is that a spray is a lot less accurate than say a Taser dart.  If an officer utilizes pepper spray (I’m not talking about the foam version which is another story), whoever is in the surrounding area is likely to be affected.  This can mean innocent bystanders can experience the burning of the eyes and face and officers are likely to get hit with it as well.

In my former police department, one of the requirements to carry Capstun was that you had to be sprayed by it so you would know how your body would respond.  My academy classmates and I were sprayed directly in the eyes and the tear and mucus glands said, “We’ll take it from here!”  I did not find it amusing when the spray hit my face and I still did not find it amusing when I was able to open my eyes 45 minutes later.  Actually, I still don’t find it amusing.

The potential of accidentally being sprayed by another officer and being blinded while armed, was a very real one.  These days, departments still have officers carry pepper spray even if they carry Tasers.  However those agencies had to switch to certain brands like Vexor since some types of spray can be flammable and should not be used in conjunction with anything that gives off electricity – like a Taser.


These are just a few of the major tech changes that have occurred in the past (cough) 14 years.   They are changes that many newcomers to law enforcement likely take for granted.  How many of us in our late 30’s ever remember back to the days of going for a run with a portable CD player instead of an iPod?  How many of us ever think, “Wow, I wish I had a camera with me” instead of pulling out our cell phone and simply snapping a picture?

But, you know what?

Now I do run with an iPod.

I do own a Smartphone.

I do listen to modern music and even attend an occasional rock concert (even if I wear an Atari T-shirt and Kangaroo shoes).


Maybe I’m not old.  Perhaps it’s okay that I still know how to use a Polaroid and can read a map book.  As long as I’m evolving with the technology, I’m not necessarily becoming an antique.  Instead, I’m learning to appreciate our advances while not becoming totally dependent upon them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to load some Skid Row songs onto my iPod Shuffle.  I’m still a Youth Gone Wild.


What are some of your favorite tech advances over the past several years?  Have they changed the way you do your job?

J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.

Twitter @JJHensleyauthor


An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.



In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered.  When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.


Finalist – 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards – Best First Novel
Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!
Top Ten Books of the Year – Authors on the Air












1 thought on “Police Tech: The Atari, The Polaroid, and Grown Men Crying

  1. paul kent

    I worked for Motorola communications from 1985-1997-designed, oversaw the installations of the communications parts of most of the 911 systems along the ohio river -the saber was better served as a boat anchor in it analog form…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.