I recently met with a young man of 19 that was trying his best to write a mystery story for school, that took place in the early 1970s. There was a lot of police interaction throughout his writing. His main trouble was he was only familar with the police of today and missed several points.


So I thought I would spell out a few items here for you younger writers, that may not have been born in the 1960s or 70s. Some departments were of course further advanced and equiped than others, but most were still pretty low tech.




Then: The average LEO in those days carried a .38 cal. revolver, either a Smith and Wesson or a colt, (5 or 6 shots respectively) usually a 4 inch barrel and it was gun metal blue with wooden grips.


Now: Most officers now carry either a 9 mm or .40 cal. semi automatic. Some department autothorize the use of either a .41 or .45 cal. weapon. Most weapons hold from 10 to 15 rounds and most often two additional clips are carried. Color of most weapons are black and are made either of steel or a composite material.




Then: Most every officer had some type of car for a cruiser.


Now: The patrol vehicles can be a car, truck, 4 x 4 vehicle or even and ATV.




Then: Most every department had the wailing siren.


Now: Most departments use a variable siren that has a warble, high/low and/or amplified horn.


Code System:


Then: Most parts of the country used the 10 code/signal system. Like 10-4


Now: You will have to check and see what your chosen area is using. Most of the country is going to a new standardized code system.




Then: There was no CSI. They could match foot prints, finger prints and blood types. There were a few other things that were used like castings.


Now: The sky is the limit. With all of the automated computerized data bases and computers in the vehicles. Many things are almost instataneous. DNA wasn't used in criminal cases until 1988 in England.




Then: Most areas had radios in the crusiers. Once you were away from the car you were on your own. Many departments used walkie talkies to communicate from the field back to the cars. They were usually pretty large and bulky.


Now: Quite dynamic systems in the cars and small personal clip-on mics that communicates through the car system to the base or to other units. Pluse the use of cell phones.




Then: There were Polaroid cameras for immediate development in the field. Often of poor quality. SLR 35 mm film camers and 4 X 5 graphic film cameras. The last two required for the film to be developed and processed. Everything was shot in Black & White. The courts felt color was to gory.


Now: Everything instant with digital cameras of all quality including cell phones. WIth cell phone photos the picture can be shot and immediately emailed to another location.


This is just a few of the things I can think of that may make a difference in your story telling. As I think of more I will either add them here or make another post. Any questions about othe items send me a PM and ask away. I will do my best to help you out.

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You're a useful person to have around, Garry. :)
That is what I tried to tell my exwife, but she wasn't interested in writing crime stories ...

Another important one is dialogue-related: nobody used the word "awesome" then the way they do now. Common slang was very different from the current popular lexicon. It's basically a dialect issue, but it's surprising how often you see obvious mistakes in period books and films.
Jon makes a great point, and it's easily corrected with some entertaining research: just tell your young friend to read some crime stories from the period. That should help to get him set in the language and popular culture better than a lot of internet research into specifics, and will be a lot more fun.

He can always go back to the internet to see who were the hot bands, or which car sold the most, or what movies came out. Reading what was written then will be better for setting the proper tone.
We did talk about dialog. Some of his wording would have been appropriate in 2000, but not in 1971. I suggested he read a couple of Mickey Spillane mysteries. Spillane covered a pretty good time frame and is pretty good representation of the language of the period.

Excellent! Mind if I add a few:

Then: The media and a number of homeowners had scanners. But the scanners were based on crystals; you had to find out what frequency your police agency was on, and go to Radio Shack and buy a crystal for that frequency.

Now: Scanners are very sophisticated and make it easy to listen in on the local LEO radio conversations.

Then: Because they were using film, and because they had to process and develop the film, you rarely had more than two, maybe three rolls of film shot at a crime scene. Police agencies frequently provided a contact sheet along with the prints.

Now: Digital cameras with gigabytes of storage mean hundreds of images are taken at the crime. While this greatly enhances memorializing the scene, each image then has to be examined by someone who has to make a decisions as to whether it's relevant and should be printed for use at trial. Lots of advantages (discovery, for example, is a breeze as you burn everything to a CD or DVD versus spend hours at the photo lab processing images) but you can be overwhelmed by the volume.

Then: Very few in-custody interviews were recorded.

Now: Nearly all in-custody interviews are recorded, at least by larger agencies. Some states, like my home state of Missouri, are requiring certain high grade felony interviews to be recorded no matter the size of the department.
You are right on James. I did criminal photography for three different departments. I used a Pentax 35 mm SLR. I bought film in bulk and loaded all of my own rolls of film. I loaded as few as ten shots to a roll and many as I believe 48. I usually carried enough film to do 100 shots at a scene if needed. After the the shots at the scene it was a matter to rush home, develop the film, print the contact sheets and present them by the next morning. There were many nights this left very little if any time for sleep. I enjoyed, but it wasn't real conducive for a good married or family life. After the shots were selected I would have to enlarge and process the photographs, sometimes printing 5 or more of each. I charged $15 for the shoot and $5 each for the finished photos. Each photo had to be identified with a whole assorted bunch of information on the back of each photo if they were going to be used in a trial. I had to provide camera settings ( aperture, speed) film type and speed, direction of shot, lens size (28 mm - wide angle, 52 mm - normal, telephoto or macro), distance from target and time of shot. I think that was all. Then you had to be certified as an expert to be able to testify in court, which I was after taking several criminal photography courses at the local college.

Life is so much easier today and some scenes were horrific.

I have a question about the photographs. I was told several years ago that digital photos weren't accepted by some courts because of the difficulty in determining if the image had been altered. After having seen what my wife can do with Photo Shop, is this a legitimate concern when writing a contemporary story?

Since I have have been out of Law Enforcement for several years. I called a Captain of one of the departments I am familiar with and ask him your question. He told me that in some cases and some courts will take photos that are computer generated and others won't. The only way they have been able to get around the ones that won't is that each office that uses a camera has has several photo cards with them and at the time of leaving the scene the card is removed and sealed in a evidence bag. Then it goes through the evidencery produce each time anyone removes the card to view the photos on the card. So in essence, the chain of eveidence is never broken.

Hope that answer your question.

That has got to be a very important bit of information.
Typically at the time of trial the witness is asked if the still image "fairly and accurately" represents what he or she saw at the time of the crime. Or, if it's an exterior taken weeks or months later, the witness is asked if this "fairly and accurately" represents the venue. Often the witness will say things to enhance the value of the image ("Yes, but there was some snow that day." "Yes, but the door has been replaced.")

Rarely does an image stand as a silent witness. It can -- store camera catching a crime, for example -- but even then someone typically has to testify that the equipment was in working order and images it captured failry and accurately reflect the events of the date in question.

Since at least one (and often many witnesses) identifies the still as accurately memorializing the crime scene, digital manipulation concerns are diminished or eliminated. Plus, with digital cameras one usually also has the ability to make a video record, too, and that combined with the digital stills makes complaints about image tampering rare.
Thanks for the valuable reminder!


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