Cleveland Police Ambulance Service

Patrol wagons, known as “Black Marias,” employed by the Cleveland Police were purchased out of necessity.  According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer “In the earlier days police had been drafting express wagons and commandeering wheelbarrows to tote the intoxicated and the injured and the insane.  The criminal, if his legs were normal, had to walk.”

The first horses ever purchased by the police department was a team for the first patrol wagon, and they were acquired on January 7, 1887. The very first trip of a patrol wagon in the city of Cleveland occurred on January 20, 1887 with Patrolman Michael Regen 132 in charge. They operated out of the new stables that had been constructed next to police headquarters on Champlain Street. These “patrols,” as the wagons were called, performed duties as prisoner transports and ambulances, and as it happened, motorized versions of them were to become the first horseless vehicles employed by the police force.

The first motorized patrol Wagon in Ohio was purchased by the Akron Police Department.

Akron had the world’s first motorized police patrol wagon. Electrically powered, it was built by Akron’s Collins Buggy Co. in 1899 at a cost of $2,400. On level ground it could do 18 mph and its batteries provided enough power to run it 30 miles without charging. During Akron’s big riot of August 22, 1900, the wagon was pushed into the Ohio Canal. Rescued the next day, it served a few more years and then was junked.

In Cleveland Chief Kohler lamented in 1910, “If this city doesn’t hurry up other towns will have aero planes by the time we get our first automobile patrol.”

Patrolman Christian “Fred” Sizler #178 in the middle of two unidentified Patrolmen
standing in front of a Peerless Patrol Wagon.

The first emergency motor patrol wagon in Cleveland was purchased in May of 1911 and assigned to the 11th Precinct.  It was an 80-horsepower, four cylinder Peerless fitted with a special body.  It had heavy wire screened sides with roll curtains all around.  The inside was fitted with seats that were convertible when the vehicle was needed as an ambulance.  It was equipped with a light stretcher.  In eight months of use it made a thousand runs for a total of 5,807 miles servicing the east side precincts.  It hauled nearly a thousand prisoners and responded to 39 emergency and ambulance calls.

Advertisement in a 1939 issue of
Life Magazine.

The most significant change in the structure of The Cleveland Division of Police since motorized vehicles were introduced came when the division was completely reorganized by Public Safety Director Eliot Ness.  When Ness was appointed Safety Director, the City of Cleveland had the highest traffic fatality rate in the country.   Ness established a four-prong approach to reduce the deaths.  He created an Accident Investigation Unit to determine causes of traffic accidents.  An Accident Prevention Unit was established to take the information gathered by the Accident Investigation Officers and educate the public in traffic safety. Thirdly, he established a police ambulance force with volunteer Officers given special training in emergency first aid developed by City Hospital.  The fourth element was the inclusion of high-profile police patrols. 

Rear view of a 1938 International Emergency Patrol Wagon.
Ambulance Men receiving training at the Cleveland Police Academy located at 1282 Riverbed Avenue in 1938.

Patrolman Anton S. Lohn #93 and his partner with their 1938 International Emergency Patrol Wagon.
One of fifteen cream colored Studebaker President automobiles serving as Accident Prevention Cars.

At this time, the current system of assigning basic patrol cars to specific zones was introduced.  With the reorganization, many new vehicles were obtained.  The newly purchased Ford Zone cars and International ambulances were given a fresh “visible” look with a snappy red and blue paint scheme, with a cream accent stripe.  The Accident Prevention Cars, donated by the Studebaker company, were painted white and the Accident Investigation Vehicles, leased from the Oldsmobile company, were painted canary yellow.  The ambulances were staffed by two men, who “…will not only take care of the business of picking up drunks, picking up people injured in accidents and taking them to the hospital, but also in general patrol, crime and traffic enforcement work,” stated Ness.

Mobile Patrol 395,
a 1950 International Emergency/Van.

These vehicles were replaced with the big box like Paddy Wagons of the 1950’s.   Although Cleveland Police vehicles had been equipped with sirens (“growlers”) and occasionally spotlights for many years, it wasn’t until 1950 that the rotating flasher light, or “gumball machine” began to appear on CPD patrol cars.  By that time CPD vehicles had given up the blue and red paint scheme, in favor of black and white.   The big box Paddy Wagons were eventually replaced in the 1960’s with station wagons that served as patrol cars and ambulances.  These vehicles were fitted with prisoner screens and significantly reduced the need for “paddy wagons.”  Each police district did maintain two vehicles for prisoner transport that also doubled as ambulances when needed.  But, they were smaller and sleeker than the big box vans.

Zone Car 639, 1955 Ford Station Wagon used as a patrol car and capable of serving as an ambulance.
Rear View of Zone Car 639.

Emergence Mobile Patrol Wagon 391, a 1968 GMC.
Rear view of Mobile Patrol 391.

However, the most startling change to the appearance of CPD cars came in late 1968, with the introduction of the controversial “High Visibility Safety Green” cars.  Often derided as “Perks’ Pickles,” (after then-Mayor Ralph Perk) the so-called “Slime Green” cars remained in use until 1978, when the black and white scheme was re-instated.  Nevertheless, Safety Green is still very visible in Cleveland, in that it is the color still used on EMS ambulances.

Zone Car 416, a 1978 For Station Wagon, painted in the “high visibility” color of Safety Green.
1978 Ford LTD, painted in the “high visibility” color of Safety Green, restored by the Vintage Vehicle Committee.

Cleveland Police Officers were relieved of ambulance duties in 1975 when the City obtained a Federal grant to establish the Cleveland Emergency Medical Services, a private company that began providing ambulance services in Cleveland. In the mid-80s, EMS became an official division within the Department of Public Safety and all of the employees were grandfathered in as City employees.

1940 International, restored by the Vintage Vehicle Committee in 2017
as an original Emergency Mobile Patrol Wagon.
Read more about this truck here:

Written by Cleveland Police Historical Society and Museum volunteer Commander Robert Cermak, Ret.

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