Policing in 2020 versus 1987: An interview with Chief Robert Helton

BLET class in 1987 with captionMany things have changed for officers joining the Gastonia Police Department today compared to when Robert Helton first joined the department in 1987. Since Chief Helton retires Oct. 1, Employee Focus staff asked him for his thoughts about how much things have changed. As one might expect, cell phones topped the list.

“Back when I started there were no cell phones,” Helton said. “I can remember it being a big deal when some of the supervisors got one of those bag phones to put in their cars and it was only for emergencies. It had very limited minutes and you could only use it for extreme emergencies. I remember thinking back then ‘Why would you want a telephone in your car?’ and never would have imagined everybody having one or two cell phones now.”

Back then officers were initially contacted for calls for service by Dispatch on their handheld or car radios and officers would provide a payphone number for Dispatch to call them with the details.

“There were payphones on every corner,” Helton said. “When somebody would give out a telephone number, a 7 digit number, I could just about tell you where they were, oh they’re on Garrison or over at Akers Center because I would remember the numbers at those different payphones. You could almost pick out where they were sitting at. That was kind of fun.”

Streets and Maps

The ability to read a paper map, knowing streets and finding your way to calls was a big part of the job in 1987 versus now in 2020 when you just follow GPS.

That was a big deal back then with a new trainee and when I was training people later on as to how well they could read a map and how well they could follow it,” he said. “Sometimes we’d be on the way to a call and they’d get turned around, and unless it was an emergency where I’d say this is how we get there, I’d say ‘pull over, find it.’ They’d have to pull over, get their map back out, figure out where they were and find it. We would do little challenges then when we were training someone. I would think of a street that was kind of obscure where we didn’t go very often, and I’d say ‘hey, take me to this place.’ So they’d have to find it and take me there. That was a little test, so very different.”

No AM/FM Radio Allowed In Cars

Supervisors wanted officers to focus on calls for service. “They would check the cars sometimes to make sure you didn’t have a little transistor radio,” Helton said. “You were not supposed to have those. Of course now with smartphones you’ve got everything.”

Old PDLess-Lethal Weapons

Back then when officers arrived at a call for service and got out of their cars to talk with citizens, they looked a little like today’s officers wearing riot gear. “Your less-lethal weapon was a wooden baton. You had your firearm and a wooden baton. So you can imagine today getting out on a call with that baton and putting it in your belt or holding it in your hand while you’re talking to somebody. A much different and intimidating look. So now we have the ASP baton that collapses and goes on the belts, you don’t even really see it’s there, OC spray, Tasers, all of that being a much better remedy when you’re dealing with somebody who’s combative rather than something that’s going to injure somebody.”


GPD’s standard issue firearm has changed from revolvers to the .45-caliber Smith & Wesson.

“When I started we had revolvers, old six shooters with speed loaders to load it,” Helton said. “You put the speed loader in there, click it and you hope your bullets didn’t fall out when you’re going through your training. But now of course, they’ve got semi-automatics with magazines and it’s just so much easier.”

Rotating Shifts

Today the GPD has three Patrol Districts: East, West and Central, but that wasn’t the case in 1987. Instead of three Patrol Districts, there were five Patrol Teams: Adam, Baker, Charlie, David and Eagle Teams. On each team officers worked a rotating shift that started with third shift, and then went to second and first shifts with a three day break between each shift change.

“At the end of that rotation was a four-and-a-half day break before you would come back onto third again,” Helton said. “Work days fell wherever they fell. You may work every weekend, you may work holidays. Now Patrol officers are on permanent shifts with every other weekend off. That’s a little easier for planning and easier too on your body because back then when you’re swinging shifts every week it’s hard to keep up with when to eat, when to sleep, when to do anything when you’re constantly in that change mode.”

West District 2Patrol Teams and Camaraderie

Back in the day of the five Patrol teams, your team was who you worked with all the time at the GPD. “I really think that back then shifts and teams seemed to be a little closer because you were with the same people all the time,” Helton said. “The difference was when you were off, you were off and didn’t have the around the clock responsibility of today. Now there are districts and you’re responsible for a district and a captain is over that district all the time. So there’s a lot more responsibility and a lot more accountability around the clock now than back then.

“I think with everybody mixing and working with other districts and other supervisors I don’t know that they have that same camaraderie, that same team feeling that maybe was back in the day when you worked with the same sergeants and the same captain and you were the ones working the whole city all the time. A little difference in the assignment. Back then you’d see a shift after second shift, say for example, they’d hang around an hour or two hours sometimes after the shift talking out in the back parking lot. It just seemed different back then. Maybe it’s just a change of times, and that was before cell phones and social media too.”

Special Teams

There were no special teams in 1987. That came a little later with SWAT and the Crisis Negotiations Team, Bomb Squad, Traffic Unit, and Street Crimes Unit. It was in the late ‘80s when Chief Jack Postell started bringing in special teams, Helton said.

Increased Family Involvement

The GPD offers more ways today for family interaction with events like swearing-in ceremonies, Family Days and Awards ceremonies.

“Back then when you were hired you were brought in the Chief’s office,” Helton said. “They gave you your badge, said go down to Property and get your uniforms and you just kind of went to work. Now I think we do much more to recognize our family and friends, which I think is so important. Your family is your support system. I think including family helps tremendously and is a very positive change that’s been made over the years.”

Bike Patrols Helton ChambersCommunity Policing and Shift-Level Investigation

Back in 1987, Patrol officers cleared calls as quickly as possible to be available for the next call, and reports were all paper, and not the current software system.

“Now with Community Policing, there’s a whole different mindset of going to calls, meeting people, solving the problem and working through it,” Helton explained. “We’ve realized through Community Policing the importance of being in connection with the community. It was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when that concept came into place. I remember back when I first started there were areas of town that you couldn’t respond to without having a backup car with you. The relationship was not good. But now I don’t know of any place like that. We have a much better relationship across the whole community.

“Follow up investigations are different now too. That was kind of unheard of back when I started. Everything that needed to be investigated would go to Detectives. Shift level investigation is something newer.”

Physical Abilities Testing

In Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) in 1987 the physical test was to do a 4-mile run in 40 minutes so everyone worked on building up their run all through BLET. Today, the 4-mile run has been replaced by the POPAT (Police Officer Physical Ability Test).

“Now it’s a test of your strength and ability. You run a short distance, jump over something, crawl under something, do pushups, do sit ups, pull a dummy, to test your overall ability, which is probably much more work-related than a 4-mile run,” Helton said.

You’re On Camera Now

In 1987 if pictures were needed, officers called the Identification (ID) Bureau.

“Back then no cameras were on calls, and you didn’t think about cameras on calls,” Helton said.If you needed somebody to take a picture you called ID out to take pictures. Now there are cameras on every call, the body-worn cameras. There are cell phones on every call. There are pictures and video on just about everything we do."

Three Decades of Change

So many things have changed in the last three decades. Some things run their course like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) or the Field Training Officer (FTO) Program and are replaced with other programs like kids camps, Shop with a Cop, and the Police Training Officer (PTO) Program.

Some things like DNA evidence, 3D images to aid investigations, and a lot of training conducted online are here to stay. Most progress helps the GPD stay in step with changing times like adding dash cameras in the 1990s or increase professionalism like obtaining national accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) in 2014.

One Thing That Hasn’t Changed

The GPD has awesome employees. “You have the best people in the world to work with then and now,” Helton said. “How many people can say this group of people would lay down their life for each other? I do think that when we are at our worst, when things are going badly, when there’s an emergency, that’s when we’re at our best. That’s really when we do our best work and come together, pull together and work as a team. That’s always so great to see when things get tough.

“In law enforcement, we see people when they’re troubled, a crime’s been committed, or something’s happened and they’re a victim or even a suspect. It’s nice to see that other side, and we’ve seen that a lot even recently with all that’s happening in the community with the challenges with COVID and the challenges with social things happening. We’ve really seen the community come around us and support us.”

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Gastonia, N.C., just minutes west of Charlotte, is one of the area’s best places to live and work with an ideal combination of location, size and livability. Gastonia is the largest of Gaston County’s 13 municipalities and one of the largest cities in the Charlotte metropolitan area. Selected as an All-America City three times, Gastonia’s desirable quality of life is the result of its beautiful natural surroundings, friendly neighborhoods, responsive government and vibrant business environment.



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