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Who’s still using typewriters? The Chicago Police Department

Once a fixture in every police station, typewriters mostly disappeared with computerization. But some are still in use, says the repairman hired to keep them working.

Bebon Office Machines & Supplies at 234 S. Wabash Ave. — above Al’s Italian Beef and left of Central Camera — repairs the last of the Chicago Police Department’s electric typewriters.
Bebon Office Machines & Supplies at 234 S. Wabash Ave. — above Al’s Italian Beef and just south of Central Camera — repairs the last of the Chicago Police Department’s electric typewriters.
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The Chicago Police Department has a typewriter repairman. Which it needs because, well, it’s still using typewriters.

“Police officers, in general, are very heavy typists,” said Keith Bebonis, the guy the police call to repair those heavy, hard-shelled relics.

“These machines are known to take abuse,” said Bebonis, whose dad started Bebon Office Machines & Supplies in the late 1960s. “I don’t want it to seem like I’m saying they’re taking their frustrations out on the typewriter. But they’re just not very sensitive with these machines.”

Bebon has had a contract to repair 40 to 50 IBM typewriters a year for the police department, along with fixing time stamps and heat sealers. The city has paid Bebon $61,275 between 2007 and February 2020 to repair that aging equipment, records show.

Actors Hal Linden (left) and the late Abe Vigoda in “Barney Miller.”
Actors Hal Linden (left) and the late Abe Vigoda in “Barney Miller.”
Wikimedia commons

When you think of typewriters and cops, you might think of “Barney Miller” or “Hill Street Blues,” popular cop shows in the 1970s and ’80s. Typewriters were prominently positioned on the desks of those TV cops.

The late actor Michael Conrad in “Hill Street Blues,” in which he played Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, who ended the introductory roll call in each show with “Let’s be careful out there.”
The late actor Michael Conrad in “Hill Street Blues,” in which he played Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, who ended the introductory roll call in each show with “Let’s be careful out there.”
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But there’s a dark side to the history of typewriters and the Chicago police. Suspects in violent crimes accused late Cmdr. Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew” of detectives of smothering them with typewriter covers to torture them into confessing in the 1970s and ‘80s, an allegation Burge denied.

In interviews with cops including a former chief, a commander, a sergeant and a couple of beat officers, none could recall seeing anyone in the department hunting and pecking on an old IBM these days.

“Good luck finding a copper who uses one,” the commander said.

The sergeant said: “Yeah, there’s one at Homan Square on a shelf, gathering dust.”

A police spokesman said dozens of types of forms are still filled out with typewriters, including missing-person forms, towed-vehicle forms and search-warrant logs. He said the typewriters are located “throughout the department.”

The department began to wean itself off typewriters in the late 1990s, shifting cops to work on computers — a tough switch for some of them.

In 1997, Chicago cops generated nearly 1.5 million paper documents. In 1998, the department rolled out a computer system called the Criminal History Records Information System to automate its reports. It was the beginning of the end of police reports pecked out on typewriters.

Bebonis, 46, said he doesn’t know who use the police department’s typewriters these days. He said he picks up the machines in the mail room at police headquarters.

The IBM Wheelwriter Series 6
The IBM Wheelwriter Series 6
typewriters.com

He said the department uses two kinds of typewriters: IBM Wheelwriter 6 Series II and IBM Wheelwriter 1500. The 6 Series has memory to store 15 to 20 typed pages, an early version of a word processor, and was manufactured in the late 1980s. The 1500, made in the 1990s, has only a page of memory.

“There were 25 IBM dealers in downtown Chicago selling typewriters back in the day,” Bebonis said. “There was high, high demand. We were selling 150 a month, on average, in the 1990s.”

IBM sold Wheelwriters from the mid-1980s until 1991, when it spun off its typewriter division to Lexmark, which continued to make IBM-brand typewriters until 2002.

Bebonis said his dad Bill immigrated from Greece and worked for a typewriter company in Chicago before starting his own business on South Wabash in the Loop. Bebonis worked in the family business in high school and attended college across the street at DePaul University.

The company is in a building under the L tracks at 234 S. Wabash Ave., next door to the 121-year-old Central Camera Co., which was destroyed by fire during looting on May 30. The venerable Exchequer restaurant is in the same block.

“That block is everything to me,” said Bebonis.

Decades ago, Bebon Office Machines was repairing typewriters for plenty of city agencies — aviation, fire, water, transportation and the library. The company’s oldest contract with the city goes back to 1994, according to the city contracts website. But Bebon’s only remaining city contract for typewriters is with the police department.

The business, owned by Bebonis’ mother Stella, also has a $2.5 million contract to supply copier paper to Cook County, records show.

The department’s typewriters used to be repaired every four months because they got so much wear and tear.

“People would spill coffee on them and short out the keyboards,” Bebonis said. “They were filthy.”

The typewriters don’t need much maintenance now, but parts are hard to get.

“In the Wheelwriter, the whole keyboard is on one circuit, so you can’t repair just one letter like a regular typewriter,” Bebonis said. “We used to do it in-house, but we now send it out to vendors.”

Bebonis said his family’s business has adapted as times changed.

“We evolved from typewriters to fax machines to copiers,” he said. “We’ve lasted through everything.”