Units: Cleveland’s Flying Squads of the 1920s

1920 Buick Touring car and its unidentified crew, one of the radio equipped  “Flying Squad” vehicles. These radio vehicles had a five man crew assigned, a sergeant and 4-patrolmen. The vehicle and its crew are shown posed on the street in front of the old Second Precinct Station at the corner of Oregon and Oliver Streets.

After the murder of Patrolman Leroy E. Bouker #132 on November 17, 1912, City of Cleveland Mayor Newton D. Baker and Safety Director Charles W. Stage called for a larger police force and improvements to how the police conducted their work.  Included in the recommendation was the creation of a special group of police officers – flying squads.  Director Stage said, “There should be reserves in every station that could be sent out at every call…These flying squads together with an increase in the number of auto patrols would put us in better shape.”

In late 1912, the Fire Department had established Flying Squads to immediately respond in motorized equipment to fire alarms. Two years later, Police Chief William S. Rowe recommended to Director Alfred A. Benesch the creation of a Flying Squadron consisting of several Detectives and Plain Cloths Officers who would be assigned to Central Station, ready to answer a call to any part of the city.  But it wasn’t until 1919 that Police Chief Frank Smith was able to create police Flying Squadrons at Central Station and the Fifth Precinct.  The officers would respond to the scene of an incident and gather the important initial information.  If they received a description of a suspect(s), they would immediately go to the nearest call box and provide that information to the operator, who then passed the information on to the appropriate precinct and officers in the area when they made their regular hourly call.

C. L. Kirkpatrick did an excellent job describing the efforts of the original Flying Squads in his 1920 Cleveland Plain Dealer article titled Soldiers Who Never Sleep – How The Cleveland Flying Squadron Keeps Twenty-Four Hour Vigil.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer commended Chief Smith in 1921 for the creation of the Flying Squadron system. “Not only has the system proved effective in pursuing criminals, but it has also been the cause of many lives being saved.  The officers in automobiles that can reach a speed of seventy miles an hour answer emergency calls in cases of drownings, fires and other occasions that endanger life.”

Five 1924 Peerless automobiles with “California” tops lined up outside of Cleveland City Hall. Chief of Cleveland Police Jacob Graul in uniform is standing in the center of the photograph with an unidentified man in a bowler hat. The remaining men and women in the photo, all in civilian clothes, are unidentified.

The Detroit Police Department initiated radio dispatched flying squadrons in late 1928.  They had 15 police vehicles equipped with radio receiving sets. They were termed “cruisers” because they constantly cruised the city.  Detroit’s tests showed that the cruisers could receive a message within 150 miles of the headquarters, regardless of the speed of the vehicle. 

Inspired by the success in Detroit, Cleveland City Manager William R. Hopkins ordered the police to begin radio testing, over the objection of Safety Director Edwin D. Barry.  Barry called radios used in police work “just a plaything.”  Hopkins worked with A. R. Howlett, manager of radio station WHK. WHK offered the use of their broadcasting facilities.  Hopkins also ordered Jerry Murphy, Superintendent of the police signal system, to determine what it would cost to begin this testing. 

The Cuyahoga County Police Chiefs Association rallied behind Hopkins and at a meeting at the Hotel Winton stated that each municipality should have one or more radio equipped vehicles.  East Cleveland Police Chief L. G. Corlett said that “he foresees co-operation bringing a borough police system into reality.”   Miss Leona Marie Esch, managing director of the Cleveland Association for Criminal Justice, described her visit to Detroit, where she spent five nights cruising with the police in radio equipped cars.  According to her, the Detroit police maintained their flying squadron program with officers assigned to precincts where they waited for emergency assignments.  As part of this experiment, when a call came in to headquarters, the assignment was broadcast to a cruiser and, at the same time, a teletype was sent to the appropriate precinct and a flying squad was dispatched.  During Miss Esch’s visit, the flying squad did not beat the cruisers to any assignments.  When it was finally determined that the cost of implementing such a test program in Cleveland would exceed $26,000, Hopkins expressed regret that City did not have that amount of funding available.

A series of events in early 1929 had a major impact on the possibility of testing radio use by Cleveland Police.  After the murder of Patrolman Carl L. Sherman #898, the wounding of Sergeant Martin E. Hoffman, the brazen daytime murder of Henry Firth in a downtown store, and armed robberies of several businesses, the city finally moved forward with a radio test.  Safety Director Barry said it would cost $2,700 to equip three new closed cars with short wave receiving sets. 

Patrolman Melvin Stahley 693 (seated), Dispatcher and Operator Ralph C. Folkman 1268 at the Western Electric Transmitter in the Cleveland Police Radio Room circa 1937.
Cleveland Plain Dealer collage of the first radio broadcast to the flying squad

Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 22, 1929

By September of 1929, Cleveland began testing radio receivers in police cruisers.  During the testing period, there were a few hiccups, as expected. 

It did not take long for the police to demonstrate how valuable radio dispatched cars were.  Police were arriving at the scene or crimes quickly and arrests were being made. 

Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 17, 1929

Sergeant Carl F. Fix, Patrolmen Henry E. Spilker 32, Frank Hekna 883, Driver unknown.

In November of 1929, Safety Director Edwin Barry announced the installation of a second “radio power plant and transmitter” on top of Central Station to relieve “strain on the present plant.”  He also announced doubling the number of radio equipped squad cars, bringing the total number to 16.  The plan would allow one radio equipped car to be assigned to each precinct.

1924 Lincoln radio cruiser staffed by Detectives Jack Dudek 1156, William J. Husman 764, unidentified passenger and unidentified Detective holding a sawed off shotgun.

Before 1931, curious Clevelanders interested in gawking at crime scenes were limited to just people in the neighborhood who could walk to the scene or those who heard about it through word of mouth. The advent of the radio system in 1931 changed the way the public followed police activity. Now they could monitor the police calls over the police radio.  In Hollywood, people even reinvented the old fashioned treasure hunt game.  Party goers listened to the police radio broadcasts and then raced each other to the crime scene to see who can get there first, gather all the details, and then return back to the party to share their stories.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 31, 1931

The beginning of the end of the Cleveland Police Flying Squads started on August 21, 1931, when Safety Director Barry asked City council to triple the number of radio cruisers.  Council approved the purchase.  The Director said that the police would no longer patrol the city in large touring cars with four officers in each one.  Instead, a single officer will patrol in a small, closed car.  Barry further said that “if more than one man were needed at one place simultaneously, the police radio could order a mobilization of the smaller machines.”

Patrolman Frank G. Dahlhausen 931 talking on the radio in one of the smaller radio cars, circa 1938

Unidentified officers inspecting a new 1937 radio equipped patrol car

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

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