ST. LOUIS • The crackling broadcast warned of a prowler in the basement at 1105 Chouteau Avenue. Officers in a car on the 12th Street viaduct sped toward the scene one block away.
They quickly nabbed John Acosta, 33, with an armload of stolen lead pipe. The suspect drew six months in the city workhouse.
Acosta’s arrest on Aug. 12, 1930, earned him the dubious honor of being the first lawbreaker undone by the St. Louis Police Department’s original radio system, which had gone on the air that day. About one-half of the department’s patrol vehicles, known as “scout cars,” were equipped with radio receivers.
The system operated like the AM station it was. Police radio KGPC broadcast from headquarters at 12th (now Tucker) Boulevard and Clark Street. Because anybody with an ordinary radio could listen, the frequency became a popular draw for curious citizens, criminals and personal-injury lawyers.
St. Louis followed Chicago, Detroit and a few other cities in building a police radio system. The $45,000 cost included the transmitter, tower, broadcast booth and the receivers that were bolted onto the cabin ceilings of 72 police cars and vans.
Police Chief Joseph Gerk said radio promised to give his officers a critical new jump on criminals, who had become adept at getaways in stolen cars.
“Often a few seconds will spell the difference between apprehension and escape,” he said.
In 1930, the primary form of communication between beat officers and the 12 precinct stations were the 642 police telephone boxes on street corners throughout the city. Before radio days, officers in vehicles also had to pull over and use the phones to reach their commanders.
Because motor officers couldn’t talk back on the “one-way” radios, their directive was to listen to all broadcast reports and speed to scenes if they were close. Generally, the rule applied to anyone within 12 blocks of an incident. They used the call boxes to relay updates, such as suspect descriptions, to the radio room.
There were unintended consequences. Officers found gangster John Lugar sitting in his Packard at 14th and Chestnut streets, listening to police broadcasts over a portable radio. “Just getting myself some entertainment,” Lugar said. And because so many lawyers rushed to traffic accidents, the department stopped describing specifics over the air, directing only that officers go to a location “to investigate.”
Eighteen months after Acosta’s first radio arrest, Gerk reported that the system had boosted successful case resolution by 20 percent. The city soon was handling radio calls for a few near suburbs, including Richmond Heights and University City.
“I can’t understand now how we ever got along without it,” Gerk said.
In 1935, the department began installing two-way radios in cars. It switched to an FM frequency in 1947, making it harder for citizens to keep time by police broadcasts. The first bulky walkie-talkies were issued in 1951, followed two years later by a few car-to-car radios. Today’s 911 system was inaugurated in 1980.