From truncheons to tasers – the changing face of policing

ALL CHANGE A policeman helps children cross the road in the 1940s
ALL CHANGE A policeman helps children cross the road in the 1940s
Ching-He Huang

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With their smart black capes and only one baton to go round, the police officers patrolling our streets in the 1940s might have been doing the same job as their modern-day counterparts.

But the differences in uniform alone show how massively policing has changed over the past seven decades.

The force’s core business – preventing and investigating crime – has never changed.

Yet everything from the methods used, to the way they work, has been through many transformations.

On Saturday visitors to Gunwharf Quays will get to take a nostalgic look back at the police force of the past.

The Policing Through The Ages event (see panel) will give them a chance to see many of the old vehicles and uniforms used by officers over the years.

PC Mark Walsh, who is part of the team responsible for organising the event, says it’s a great chance for people to take a look at how policing has changed.

More than 30,000 people saw last year’s event – and this year’s already promises to be bigger.

‘I came up with the concept last year,’ explains PC Walsh, from the Portsmouth City Centre unit.

‘It came at a time when there were a lot of changes going on in the force. One thing people in the community kept saying was “your job is changing”.

‘I didn’t want people to worry or to think that and I wanted to do a community event with a difference.

‘Traditionally, we focus on who we are and what we do and I wanted to include a twist – this is who we are today and this is where we’ve come from and our history.’

A funding shortfall means Hampshire Constabulary is facing up to a future full of change. Chief Constable Alex Marshall needs to save £20m in this year’s budget alone.

But while cuts have already seen Hampshire get rid of 170 police officers, the event aims to look at the lighter side of the force’s history.

Modern-day officers have a mass of technology at their fingertips. But of course it wasn’t always like that.

When the first speed cameras were introduced, the equipment looked a bit like old-fashioned surveillance cameras – mounted to the dashboard of patrol cars.

These days the in-car technology does all the work at just the push of a button.

Police boxes with flashing lights on top used to be a familiar sight on the streets of Hampshire and radios weren’t used until after the Second World War.

Now officers in Portsmouth can talk to their colleagues in Scotland over the same radio network and do paperwork in their cars thanks to on-board computer systems.

‘Throughout time there have been changes, but one thing that will never change is what we do,’ insists PC Walsh.

‘Policing does change over time – we like to think that it changes for the better.

‘People often talk about the good old days. Well I wanted to show people what the good old days looked like.’

Police equipment

Even the humble truncheon has been through a process of modernisation over the years.

Batons – and the way officers are allowed to use them – have changed massively.

Today, officers still carry their batons – but it’s no longer the only piece of equipment at their disposal.

Tasers use an electrical current to temporarily bring down someone who might be running away, or be particularly aggressive, or dangerous.

The pistol-shaped tasers were rolled out across England and Wales in 2008. But, as PC Mark Walsh explains, officers in the 1940s had a less sophisticated method of disabling offenders.

‘Apparently the officers used to fold up their capes and use it as a weapon to hit drunks with,’ he explains.

‘They used to have one duty baton and the senior officer used to carry that baton.

‘That’s why everyone else used their capes as weapons.’

He adds: ‘Now we carry a baton, handcuffs, CS spray and limb restrainer. There are armed response units and tasers. It just goes to show it was probably less dangerous if you’re measuring it on what police officers were wearing.’

Four-legged friends

Hampshire Constabulary has had its own Dog Support Unit since 1959 when it bought two dogs from Surrey police. Things have progressed a lot since then – the unit is now based at Netley, with dogs and handlers working across the county, providing cover 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

The unit is headed by its own inspector who leads a team of sergeants and police constables, plus police staff who work as trainers, plus an office manager.

An officer wearing authentic 1980s dog unit uniform will take part in Saturday’s event – along with a Labrador.

Technology is key

In 2011, police officers use everything from Twitter to podcasts to get their message out.

But back in the 1940s, gadgets simply didn’t exist.

Police boxes were all the rage by the ‘40s and the blue light on top would flash when a patrolling officer was needed.

With the advent of better technology, the police box has become obsolete.

The modern-day force has its own radio network that allows officers from around the country to talk to each other.

They use computer systems in their cars and the Portsmouth City Centre unit has won an award for the way it uses Twitter.

‘Some police officers found it unnerving at first,’ says PC Mark Walsh.

‘We’re working with sensitive information all the time and get used to not being able to talk about it. It seems unnatural at first to be using social media, but we’ve used Twitter to great effect.

‘During the riots we managed to quash all the rumours. We like to engage with people in Portsmouth and it’s good for that.’

All change on the road

A big feature of Saturday’s event will be a display of historic police vehicles.

As well as American cars, people will be able to see a number of cars that they might remember from across the decades.

Over the years, Hampshire Constabulary has favoured a variety of vehicles, from the 1965 Volvo Amazon and the 1968 MK2 Lotus Cortina, to the 1987 BMW 528i.

‘Today we use BMWs and a big change in Hampshire is we have more response vehicles,’ explains PC Mark Walsh.

‘At one time we only had one response car for each area, now we’ve got more response vehicles on the road.

‘In the old days they used their feet and bikes.’

Uniforms – old and new

As part of the Policing Through the Ages event, an authentic 1940s uniform will be on show.

The regulation cape certainly looks very smart, but it’s a world away from the uniforms worn by today’s Hampshire officers.

Traditional-style helmets are still a familiar sight on the streets, but the suit-style jackets and capes of the past have been replaced with stab-proof vests.

‘We’ve moved to fluorescent hi-res body armour and it’s quite popular with people because they can see us more,’ adds PC Walsh.