Arlington Police Department: 75 Years Serving the Community

1940 was a big year for municiple services in northern Virginia. Sparked by the growing population in the region, Arlington created professional police and fire departments and Fairfax created a police department of its own. In celebration of the ACPD's 75th Anniversary, the department has put together a book featuring photos and stories about the history of law enforcement in the county.

It's amazing how much policing in Arlington has changed over the past 75 years. When the ACPD department was founded on February 1, 1940 it didn't have its own communication center -- and wouldn't for a number of years. All of Arlington's police calls were dispatched from Washington, D.C. So, if an Arlington citizen needed police assistance, he or she called the police line in Washington, which then dispatched the call to an Arlington officer via radio.

But, that was not the end of the chain. In those early days, officers did not have two-way radios. As Nuneville told me, "Officers only had one way of listening for the calls and that was in their car. They didn’t have a radio on their side or anything like that. So, if they missed that call they had to go to the call box and make sure they picked up that call and answered it. So, you can just imagine how long it took maybe to respond to a call back then as opposed to today." There were several call boxes located around the county, so that policemen (yes, they were all men until Doris Beiswanger joined the force in the 1950s) could touch base with the communcations center and pickup any calls they might have missed while out of their vehicle.

The dispatch process wasn't the only thing that was different:

"Think back to the 1940s when their patrol cars didn’t have air conditioning in them. Their sirens were mounted on the fender of their police car and, from what one retiree told me recently, in the winter time those sirens would freeze up. So, they’d have to go out, take a flare, light the flare up to thaw out the sirens so you could hear the siren, they could use the siren…. No computers in the cars. Even our uniforms have changed. Way back in the ‘40s, they were wearing long sleeve shirts. It was these heavy graded uniform shirts and pants. Today, obviously, we have it a little bit better with short sleeve shirts. Our duty pants, pockets and things that we can put things in because the officers, their office is themselves. It’s either the car or themselves for everything they have to carry. You know, we look at the guns, just the weaponry over the years and how that’s changed. We have semi-automatic hand guns. Back then, it was probably the Smith & Weston 357 type of weapon."

Of course the story of the department goes much deeper than advances in uniforms and equipment. Indeed, the growth of the ACPD has mirrored the growth of the community it serves over the last 75 years. As Arlington transitioned from a mostly rural county to a densely populated urban and suburban corridor, police have been faced with new and different challenges, which few probably imagined in 1940.

Last Updated: 
December 11, 2020