Looking Back with Mathews, originally printed May 23, 1977
There is a great deal of discussion these days about the quality and efficiency of the local police department. Pulaski’s facility for providing police protection has been thoroughly modernized in recent years. Crime has become scientific, and the crime control section of the town government has been updated in order to try to keep pace. I think it can be safely stated that much of today’s problem can be attributed to human frailty somewhere along the line. Whatever the problem, I am confident that a conclusion will come quickly, and that confidence in this most vital section of government will be restored and strengthened. In the meantime I look back on some interesting history of past departments.
Certainly the work is not what it used to be. There was a time not so long ago when the neighborhood policeman walked his beat; was known by everyone in his section of town; knew every person he passed on the street, and usually greeted each vocally. His chief duties were helping little children and old ladies across the street, locking up drunks, and turning doorknobs of local business establishments. He was seldom called anything worse than “flatfoot,” and worked a twelve-hour shift seven days a week. If a circus came to town he worked the circus in his off time, and when he made arrests he was expected to be in court to testify on his own time, even if he had worked the night before.
The neighborhood policeman was most respected by mothers of first graders, and at Christmas time received a variety of gifts because he had looked after their children. He helped expectant mothers in their race to beat the stork to the hospital, and if he lost the race he was willing to make the delivery. It is doubtful if even the mail carrier wore out more shoe soles than the policeman on his beat, but he was never furnished a pair by his employer.
The chief had the only automobile, and more thought was given to helping people than to catching them. On occasions a policeman was known to observe a person carelessly breaking a law, and he would remind the person to be more careful, instead of issuing a ticket. He worked ungodly hours through adverse weather conditions for very little money. When he got too old to walk a beat he was put on a desk where he usually worked until he died.
There was no radio as we know it today, and believe it or not, the police department in Pulaski in the not too distant past did not have a telephone. The telephone office was nearby, and when a call came in for the police the operator would hang a white cloth out of the rear window of its upstairs office. I have known many of these old time law enforcement officers, and down through the years there have been some bad ones, but these have been greatly outnumbered by the good ones. Some have been joked about as being less intelligent than others, but most that I knew were respected for what they did.
It is my opinion that these policemen of the past created a sort of heritage that those of the present should think about. Not because they worked for low wages, with little need for scientific equipment, and without the security of any type of pension plan, but because of the image they created among the people they served.
I can see emerging from today’s unsettled condition, a better police department. It cannot be like anything in the past, because conditions have changed, but with some wisdom and some compassion, along with the proper amount of sternness a better atmosphere will result. Let’s just remember that a part of the policeman’s job is us. It doesn’t hurt to give a bouquet once in a while, so I want to thank the policemen and policewomen of the past and present for being at the right place at the right time, so many times.