Plain Talk Eases Police Radio Codes Off The Air

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Police radio can sound like an algebra class, with all those 10-4s and 187s.

But more and more departments are trying a radical approach: asking officers who need backup or want to report a robbery to do so in plain old English.

Late one night in 2005, a police officer on a dark highway in Independence, Mo., radioed in that he had just passed a State Highway Patrol officer's car on the side of a road with the door open.

The dispatcher confirmed his message and said she'd ask highway patrol about it. But something about the patrol car bothered the officer. He changed his mind.

"We're going to start heading back that way just in case, advise us if he's ... if you get word that he's 10-19," the officer said.

He wanted to know if the trooper was 10-19 — code for just fine, out on a call. But this state trooper was not 10-19; he was laying 20 feet away in a ditch, barely alive, shot eight times by a rifle.

This is how the dispatcher relayed that information to the State Highway Patrol: "They have a trooper in the ditch, they are ordering the ambulance, they are also trying to get Life Flight."

That's because 10-33, 10-52, GSW doesn't mean officer down, send an ambulance, multiple gunshot wounds, to the Missouri Highway Patrol. To the highway patrol, 10-33 is a traffic backup.

Because the dispatcher switched to plain English, every state trooper for 50 miles came running. The officer lived, and the suspect was caught in less than an hour.

The Push To Plain English

"In the case of a large-scale disaster, we all have to be able to go on the radio and talk to each other," says Mike Williams, assistant chief of the Chattanooga Police Department in Tennessee. His agency was on the forefront of the switch to plain talk a couple years ago, when officials realized that local agencies couldn't communicate during tornadoes and floods.

"You had 10 different radio systems, and everybody had different codes," Williams says. "It was a nightmare."

Coded police talk came about during the 1920s and '30s, when radio channels were scarce. Officers needed to get on and off the air quickly. They created what are called 10 codes, and then later signal codes. Police also thought the codes would keep things less public. But Williams says that even with different local versions, that's always been wishful thinking.

"The codes are no secret. They've been around for as long as I've been doing this, and the public pretty much knows," he says.

The real push to plain English came after Sept. 11, followed by Hurricane Katrina, when dozens of neighboring police responded to New York City, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans only to be met by utter confusion on the radio. Three years ago, the Department of Homeland Security asked police agencies to voluntarily make the switch. Many departments, such as Midwest City, Okla., have switched.

"We always say tradition is the biggest roadblock to progress, and I think it's tradition in law enforcement," says Brandon Clabes, chief of the Midwest City Police Department. Instead of saying there's a 417, officers now just say there's a man with a gun inside the 7-Eleven store.

It's been so successful, Clabes now asks his officers to write reports in plain English and talk off air in plain English, too.

"I exited my police car, or the suspects fled on foot — you know I got out of my car. I made entry. OK, I walked in the front door. It's just a simple thing," he explains.

A Barking 10-11

Police radio codes were popularized in the 1970s and '80s by cop shows on TV, such as: What's your 20? — as in 10-20, your location; he's 5150 — a mental patient; rap music is full of 187s, which are homicides.

Some departments that still use the codes take it to the extreme. It's not uncommon to hear a dispatcher say a caller is complaining about a barking 10-11.

In departments that use plain English, though, officers say there is a sense that some privacy has been lost. But most have found a work-around.

A few months ago on the streets of Washington, D.C., a police commander asks if an officer is able to talk openly.

The officer pauses.

"Um, just to give you a heads-up, I have a reporter with me who's on a ride-along," he says.

The two men quickly ditch the radio and turn to the latest in police telecommunications: cell phones.



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