Bizarre use of typewriters by US cops in the 2000s
May 14, 2010 8:48 AM   Subscribe

I started watching The Wire. The first episode depicts the Baltimore narcotics division spending much of their day writing paperwork on typewriters. When they make a mistake they use white-out. In 2002. What the hell?

I see that typewriters are still used to fill out property vouchers. But were US cops really made to typewrite all their regular reports at such a late date, and if so why? Couldn't they go to a yard sale and pick up an old IBM word processor for five bucks?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 to Technology (40 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I suspect this varies widely depending on a) the amount of money a department has, b) the level of technical support they are able to provide, and c) the sunk costs in the of pre-existing forms that would be useless with new word processors. Bureaucracy changes slowly, very slowly. Further, new technology means new training of already overworked officers and always introduces new security concerns (in the eyes of bureaucracies anyway).
posted by proj at 8:56 AM on May 14, 2010

but then they'd need a printer and an ink for that printer and the cables for it.

i think they also said about how they were supposed to get training before they were given computers and they all chuckled about how that training wasn't happening any time soon either.

you'll also notice that not everyone has a cell phone either.
posted by sio42 at 8:56 AM on May 14, 2010

But were US cops really made to typewrite all their regular reports at such a late date, and if so why?

You're generalizing here, at most The Wire was showing cops for Baltimore CITY (which is different from Baltimore County and the other counties in Maryland if I remember). Baltimore City was known for having a crappy tax base and hence not much money. Other, more affluent counties had more cash to spend on such luxuries.

I think there were a couple of lines about this in the first season, think it was Kima complaining about it to Lt. Daniels.

Couldn't they go to a yard sale and pick up an old IBM word processor for five bucks?

Sure, put would the cops even know how to use it, what to get?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:57 AM on May 14, 2010

TV datapoint: There was just an SVU episode with a typewriter for paperwork, too. It was explained away as, blah blah multicolored triplicate blah (I'm paraphrasing). Munsch made a wisecrack about how they were in it with the carbon paper companies.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:58 AM on May 14, 2010

I don't know how factually accurate any of the set trappings are on The Wire, but the typewriters (much like cop cars in later episodes--speaking vaguely so as to not spoil!) are employed to show that the BPD is kind of ass-backwards. One thing to bear in mind is that The Wire really does a good job on sucking viewers in and convincing them that what they are watching is in fact an alternate timeline of reality, but a fair amount of detail doesn't actually withstand strong scrutiny.

But yeah, it was just to show that Balitmore is all kinds of jacked up.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:58 AM on May 14, 2010

Wouldn't typewriters makes sense for filling out forms? Also David Simon's source material, gathered first for his book, was gathered in 1988.
posted by Xalf at 8:59 AM on May 14, 2010

The Wire's a realistic show, but it's still fiction, and one of the recurrent themes is an appalling lack of resources, particularly city government resources (you'll see this really pick up in later seasons). Cops in the non-fictional, real life city of Baltimore may very well have had computers in 2002.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:00 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I went to report an accident to the LAPD, the officer took a picture of my car with an actual Polaroid camera. We were kind of joking about it, but it seems they do get stuck with very updated technology in the office. (And I'm sure LAPD is a lot better funded than Baltimore PD).
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:01 AM on May 14, 2010

a fair amount of detail doesn't actually withstand strong scrutiny.

Any examples, or just a blanket accusation? Given the extreme attention to detail and realism in every aspect of the show (until the last season), I'd bet good money that if you had gone in and watched real BPD officers file reports in 2002, you'd have seen them using typewriters.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:04 AM on May 14, 2010

"very updated technology in the office" = "very OUTDATED technology in the office"
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:06 AM on May 14, 2010

They might have had computers but did they have an IT department to turn their forms into fill-outable pdfs that could be hosted on an intranet? It seems so simple to some of us but old-skool companies with little resources may very well keep with what they know and what works. Think of all the steps involved to update the process -- they've got a form (pre-printed with carbon copies) a typewriter and whiteout. Done. When my husband started working at a 100-year-old plus insurance company in 2006 they had *just* phased out their typing pool.

Though I do think this was shown to highlight the meager conditions the Baltimore cops operated in.
posted by amanda at 9:06 AM on May 14, 2010

Watch a few more episodes. One of the recurring themes in The Wire is the huge disparity in resources available to McNulty & Co versus the Feds, the State Police, other police departments, etc.

Maybe the stone-age constraints of BPD is exaggerated, but not by far.
posted by randomstriker at 9:14 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was working as a defense attorney in Chicago in 2002, most police reports we received were either handwritten or typed and photocopied. (Public Defenders still shared computers in some of the offices, too.) I have no idea how much money it costs to outfit an agency with computers, servers, printers, networks and the like, but given how little money state and county budgets have, it did not really surprise me that most police reports were still handwritten, even though I had my very own laptop on which to work. Seems perfectly plausible to me that a major metropolitan police force has so few computer resources that most guys are still using typewriters for most things. (And the cynical part of me adds: makes it *much* easy to lose witness statements and reports as well)

When I work with police and court records now in Cook County, the database is one of those old dos terminal things. You know, black screen, orange letters in one of those wargames fonts. You use the Fkeys to navigate and everything is counter-intuitive and you hit the wrong button and the cursor just blinks at you accusingly. There's no way to get any of that information into a report without printing it out and retyping it and the fields in the database aren't even Twitter-length.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:16 AM on May 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

Another consideration: I haven't seen the show, so I don't know how old the characters in question are, but - if they are of an older generation, they may have never even learned to use computers.

Anecdata: I temped in a government-related library in 2003, and they still used typewriters for forms there. My much-older supervisor (and I was almost 40 at the time) was *shocked* that I had never learned how to use a typewriter.
posted by chez shoes at 9:16 AM on May 14, 2010

I think that is exactly the response you're supposed to have, and an indication that you will totally love this series.

One thing that I think probably holds back organizations like this from moving away from typewriters is the fact that it's not a simple switch-out to wordprocessors or computers. The typewriters are used primarily to fill in forms that will have to be redesigned to accomodate the new machines, and no one wants to tackle that. I imagine they're waiting until things can be moved totally online.
posted by activitystory at 9:16 AM on May 14, 2010

Even well funded federal agencies like the IRS and Treasury still use DOS input systems from the days of yore. Just because Mircosoft is already up to Windows 7 and Office 2010 doesn't mean the lumbering beast of government has upgraded from Windows 98 or MSDOS 6.0
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:23 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's not unthinkably anachronistic: in 2002, I worked at a reasonably well-off law firm, and although most of our technology was reasonably current, we still used typewriters regularly for forms and the like. (And, like at crush-onastick's job, we used dBase III Plus.)

Shortly after that, I briefly worked at Chicago Public Schools. Many of the things I took for granted at my old office were luxuries there: our budget was so tight that we had to reuse manila folders, multiple times. Nearly all the folders I used had been written on and whited-out three or four times. I'd imagine city police departments wouldn't be much better off.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:36 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I went to report an accident to the LAPD, the officer took a picture of my car with an actual Polaroid camera. We were kind of joking about it, but it seems they do get stuck with very updated technology in the office. (And I'm sure LAPD is a lot better funded than Baltimore PD).

It's possible this is also for evidence reasons - digital images can be photoshopped, or questioned as to being photoshopped, where it's a lot harder to alter a Polariod that you see taken, ejected, and developed on the spot. There's no point at which the film has left sight of the officer or other witnesses, between the picture being taken and the image developing. (It's also faster - you don't need to hook it up to a PC, take it to a photo lab, etc.)

I am sure that more advanced / higher-end investigations use better cameras - the Polariod is likely a very good "initial snapshot" that is easy to use, and inexpensive.
posted by GJSchaller at 9:42 AM on May 14, 2010

I can't speak to the accuracy of the show, but as someone who has worked in and around IT for years, I can say that it's never as simple as going to a yard sale and picking up an old IBM word processor. As others have pointed out, when you introduce new technology, you have to consider stuff like:

1) Deployment timeline and costs
2) New staff to set up and manage the new systems
3) Training old staff to use the new systems
4) Compatibility with previous systems and planning for future systems
5) Maintenance requirements and cost
6) External infrastructure requirements (just new power cabling is a lot to think about)
7) Security implications

etc. etc. etc.

Again, repeat after me, it's not ever as trivial as going to a yard sale and picking up a word processor, especially when you are dealing with a large organization (and if I had a buck for every time someone made this kind of assumption in my presence regarding tech, I could retire, and I would also have a lot less desire to punch people in the face all the time).

Considering all of that, and considering that we are talking about a broke-ass police department and not a software company, it would be no surprise to me if they were still using typewriters in 2002: they're easy to maintain, backwards and forwards compatible with all brands of 8x11 paper and models of desks and filing cabinets, require almost no training other than typing classes, don't require network architects, network administrators, system administrators, or PC techs, and are pretty cheap. It's a no-brainer.
posted by dubitable at 9:44 AM on May 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

I worked at a small law office in New York City briefly in 2000-2001, and we still used a typewriter to fill out certain forms required by the court. The forms had to be typed and were not available in electronic form. There was no other way to do it. I find this TV scenario totally plausible.
posted by decathecting at 9:47 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

The very scene that you are talking about (I watched it again a couple of days ago) mentions the budgetary and logistical constraints in the dialogue: I am paraphrasing, but Kima says something like, "The millenium been and gone and we still using this shit," and Herc adds, "They were supposed to train us on the computers a year ago."

And with regard to: Couldn't they go to a yard sale and pick up an old IBM word processor for five bucks? One of the overarching themes of the series -- maybe THE theme -- is institutional inertia and the difficulties that well-intentioned invidviduals face in changing something deeply ingrained. Still typing on a Smith-Corona in 2002 is symbolic of the way things get done becase, "this is the way we have done them for years."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:49 AM on May 14, 2010

I guess that would be 8 1/2 x11 paper. Minor but annoying mistake. Sometimes I really wish MeFi had an edit feature...*sigh*.
posted by dubitable at 9:49 AM on May 14, 2010

Somewhere in the bowels of my dept (academic not police) is a microfiche reader, back in the early 1980s someone was convinced that these were the technology of the future and it would be a good idea to get a 25 year lease.

Up until sometime in the last five years if you requested a PhD thesis from the British Library (a copy of all such theses is sent there from UK universities (all?)) then they sent it out on a microfilm.

So its possible for places to get stuck using what looks like pretty outdated technology if the funds and/or will aren't there to update.
posted by biffa at 9:49 AM on May 14, 2010

Baltimorean here. Sounds pretty realistic. There's plenty of city forms that still get filled out in triplicate with carbonless paper and typewriters. There's probably not a strong justification for switching to computers until you can store and search the contents and systems like that cost money and time. If you're just filling out forms to go in a paper file, a typewriter does a perfectly adequate job.
posted by electroboy at 9:52 AM on May 14, 2010

I work for a well-funded agency in the federal government. When I got here a few months ago they got me a brand new computer with a fast processor (2.5Ghz C2D) and 2 GB RAM. Then they installed Windows XP and IE 6 (yes, IE 6) on it. We cannot upgrade anything on it, nor install Firefox or Chrome. Plus with all of the security features and the other crap we are mandated to have running on it, I feel like I'm back in 2002 using a Pentium II with 256 MB RAM. I literally sit here and watch the windows redraw on the screen. We have no control over anything because it's "not approved by the national office". Instead of giving each office some control over what best fits their needs, they lock down everyone.

Not to mention that the office is hooked up to a measly T1 and shared amongst 20 users, so most of our day is spent sitting here waiting on network apps/sites to load, but that's another gripe. I think another part of the problem is that the IT people that work for the government are, well... to put it lightly, would you work for the gov't if you could make twice as much money working for Cisco? And a lot of them are older too, I think they moved into IT from other gov't positions, so it's not like we have a lot of fresh grads who are into the latest technologies. The gov't throws millions of dollars at this stuff and we still end up with outdated crap.

In other words, you would not believe what government agencies are (and are not) capable of! It is insane.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 9:55 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think police reports in Philly are all still handwritten, too, and I'm pretty sure I've seen a typewriter at my local precinct for forms.

Forms are a funny thing in terms of computer technology -- computers are maybe less helpful than you'd think. And yeah, those old workhorse DOS databases are pretty typical in a lot of offices, actually, especially when there's a lot of bureaucracy involved.

Using regular office software isn't terrifically practical. Forms in Word aren't stable in terms of formatting -- new versions or new default settings can make them all wonky. There's an issue with the integrity of the recorded information, too -- once forms are completed, they shouldn't be able to be altered. Yes, yes, you make it read-only, there are a lot of ways to protect the information, but you need to get rank-and-file cops to follow the steps and comply and not make mistakes. And THEN you need some sort of electronic filing system that makes some sort of sense.
posted by desuetude at 9:55 AM on May 14, 2010

Typewriters are still the easiest way to fill out forms in duplicate/triplicate. If I hand you a fistful of paper forms from the DMV (for example), what are your options?

(1) Complete by hand with a pen. Fast for one or two, gets annoying after a few and your hand cramps.
(2) Feed it into a typewriter. This is good for doing several per day, like your sample cops.
(3)Scan it with a scanner and computer, then use some sort of software to type on top of the image of the form and then print the form out three times on different colors of paper?

The third option is the slowest and finickiest, and requires way more hardware, software, training, support... and is probably the most expensive and error-prone, too.

You just know that any old dusty bureaucracy (like, say, an underfunded police department) is chock full of crates of standardized forms. I'm sure there are still police departments and other public type bureaucracies typing forms today, let alone in 2002.
posted by rokusan at 9:56 AM on May 14, 2010

And to add to the tales of low-tech turn of the century backwardness, around then I was working for a small business that had a gross revenue in seven digits. I recall trying to convince my bosses that we should get an e-mail address, by saying that a business without e-mail in 2000 was like one without a phone in 1950.

And when we finally did, the people who handled the orders were not allowed access to e-mail: orders were printed out at another office a block away and walked over: each one on three single-sided pages, quadruple spaced.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:57 AM on May 14, 2010

The officer took a picture of my car with an actual Polaroid camera.

That's a great analog for forms-on-a-typewriter, because even with the digital boom, old fashioned Polaroids are still the best solution for a lot of things. Cheap, simple, works, and you can stick the resulting photo right onto the report immediately, without some sort of cross-referencing system of filenames and data cards to get lost/misfiled/corrupted/overwritten.

I'm no technophobe, but sometimes simple and 'old-fashioned' is best.
posted by rokusan at 9:58 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

A fair amount of detail doesn't actually withstand strong scrutiny.

Any examples, or just a blanket accusation?

Evacuate! (warning: Season 5 spoiler in article.)
posted by rokusan at 10:01 AM on May 14, 2010

I'm gonna hazard that it was done for illustrative purposes. The difference between a 10-year-old computer and a modern computer might not be easily apparent to all viewers. So an exaggeration was used to hammer the point home: this is the department at its worst and least effective and technology is one of a thousand reasons why.
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:06 AM on May 14, 2010

Most of the above answers discussing the general lack of resources in municipal police departments and the glacial pace at which bureaucracies adopt new procedures and technologies are well put.

But I'd add a bit of a civics lesson as well, specifically the relationship between those phenomenon and political separation of powers.

One might wonder why private foundations couldn't pony up the money for things like computers and training for police departments. There would certainly seem to be enough interested people with sufficient resources to make this happen, but it never does. The reason is that in the federal government and most state/local governments, it's the law that government agencies, which are part of the executive branch, can't spend any money that is both from the public coffers and authorized by the legislature.

This isn't just some bone-headed, bureaucratic grandstanding either. Doing things this way ensures that two very important things. First, that the legislature retains control over executive activities, because the executive can't simply look elsewhere for funding. Second, that executive agencies are not vulnerable to being controlled by non-governmental actors who supply their budgets.

The legislature has two main ways of controlling the executive. First, it must be the source of all legislation, which is fairly obvious. But it's also the source of all funding. If Congress really wanted to stop the war in Afghanistan and Iraq tomorrow, it could do so by de-funding operations there. Without a source of funds, the military can't operate. This may seem a bit drastic, but similar manueuvers have resulted in major reforms at various points throughout history. But if the executive is capable of looking to sources other than the legislature to fund its operations, any semblence of political control evaporates almost immediately.

But more than that, one can only imagine the problems which would come from, say, the FDA being funded by Big Pharma or the EPA being funded by oil companies. Well, what happens if the police department winds up being funded by a white supremacist group or the criminal defense bar association. The conflicts of interest are just too huge.

The downside of this is that police departments in the 21st century are using decades-old technology and mountains of paperwork. But the upside is that police departments are both controlled by their political superiors and relatively free from corruption. I mean, sure, there's small-time crooks in police departments everywhere, and the "crooked cop" stereotype rings true enough to be fodder for literature/film/etc. But the upsdie is that this is neither South America nor the USSR. In the former it's just rational to assume that traffic stops have more to do with paying the cops' salaries than enforcing the law. In the latter, the police basically ran the place. Neither of these are good outcomes, and I think most people would agree that they're far worse outcomes than our current system, flawed as it may be.
posted by valkyryn at 10:13 AM on May 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

TV datapoint: There was just an SVU episode with a typewriter for paperwork, too. It was explained away as, blah blah multicolored triplicate blah (I'm paraphrasing). Munsch made a wisecrack about how they were in it with the carbon paper companies.

It's this episode, by the way:
LAW & ORDER Special Victims Unit (SVU) "Wannabe" Season 11 Episode 23
posted by andoatnp at 10:46 AM on May 14, 2010

An attorney I know, who recently moved from California and has previously clerked in two federal jurisdictions, recently put on her FB: "Cook County court - love the carbon paper. I wonder if they have a mimeograph in chambers." I replied that it was perhaps 10-11 years ago that I was doing something in a Cook County office and they used a thermal copier.

It isn't just government, either. I worked for a major insurance company at the end of the millennium on a small part of a project to convert everything to Windows NT/XP, to avoid various millennium bug risks/concerns. The project was years behind schedule and so there was a last-minute rush to recertify everything that was not going to make the changeover. This meant moving everything that was still on DOS or Windows for Workgroups over to its own subnet.

Locally, we have a curmudgeonly taxpayer base that, at least from the comments in the local paper, thinks anything computer is too expensive for our hardworking tax slaves to bear, and that the police and city workers should take vows of poverty and ascetic penance to get through their workdays. It's ridiculous.

I wasn't fazed by that scene in any way.
posted by dhartung at 1:24 PM on May 14, 2010

2002? How about this - the NYPD still spends $1million per year supporting their typewriters:
posted by alaijmw at 4:43 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Remember, too, that David Simon is writing about events a decade or so down the line. E.g., the use of beepers in the first season (they manage to explain it in-show as a dodge against law enforcement, but it was a bit of a stretch at that date.)

That said, yeah, the PD is not exactly cutting edge when it comes to tech (and with reason, in some cases. As mentioned above, it's more efficient to fill out an NCR form on a typewriter.) They might have been pushing it, especially for detectives, but not usually by very much.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:26 PM on May 14, 2010

I worked for the Baltimore City Health Department during the period that The Wire was filming. We had computers, although the support was horrible and the legacy software was awful. What we did not have was voice mail. It was 2007 and we did not have voice mail, and there was no plan to get voice mail.
posted by OmieWise at 7:15 PM on May 14, 2010

IT isn't an end to itself; stick to what works until converting is cheaper than inertia. If the typewriters were a metaphor for lack of resources, it wasn't a very good one. Every dollar *not* wasted on using a computer to fill out a paper form is a dollar spent on policing.

(To the CPS person: you are supposed to reuse manila folders.)
posted by gjc at 7:21 PM on May 14, 2010

I don't find it at all unbelievable to be using typewriters to fill out forms in 2007. I worked at UC Berkeley until a couple of years ago, and we had a typewriter that got a lot of use. Before about 2002, pretty much all forms were typed, but then most things (in phases) went online. There were still some items, though, that got typed up even as late as two years ago.
posted by JenMarie at 8:48 PM on May 15, 2010

Having started The Wire just a few days ago as well, I asked myself the same question. Now, I've tended to see so many religious themes, allusions, and symbolism in the show that I don't find myself concerned with justifying the use of things like typewriters in 2002 and also don't attempt to fully appreciate (as much as I probably should) whether I'm seeing a realistic portrayal of things as they are, were, or might have been a few years ago.

Instead, I see the use of things like typewriting and other laboriously slow, clumsily modifiable, and sometimes ineffective means of recording important information as somewhat of a parallel to certain problems that arise with the recording, interpretation, and distribution of religious texts, e.g. the first books of the Old Testament and especially the Gospels.

The song "Superstar" in Jesus Christ Superstar includes the following lyrics, sung by Judas to Jesus, that reinforce my understanding of what's going on in this part of The Wire:

Ev'ry time I look at you
I don't understand
Why you let the things you did
Get so out of hand
You'd have managed better
If you'd had it planned
Now why'd you choose such a backward time
And such a strange land?

If you'd come today
You could have reached a whole nation
Isreal in 4 BC
Had no mass communication

Interestingly, if the portrayal is realistic in a contemporary way as most people here have suggested, the Christian message would be just as unlikely to reach a nation of people as it was originally.
posted by inconsequentialist at 2:29 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

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