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Plain Talk Eases Police Radio Codes Off The Air

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Plain Talk Eases Police Radio Codes Off The Air


Plain Talk Eases Police Radio Codes Off The Air

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Anybody who's ever watched a police drama on television knows about the language of police radio. Cops talk about a 187 and code six. Now some departments are trying a radical approach - asking officers who need backup or want to report a robbery to do so in English.

NPR's Laura Sullivan is 10/8 with the 10/36.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man: Twenty-five, what's 14 half of State 291 in Lakewood?

LAURA SULLIVAN: It's late at night 2005, in Independence, Missouri. A police officer radios in that he'd just passed a State Highway Patrol officer's car on the side of a road - with the door open.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Woman: Ten-three copy that at two-12,

Unidentified Man: Two-14.

Unidentified Woman: Two-14.

SULLIVAN: The dispatcher confirms his message and said she'll ask highway patrol about it. But something about the patrol car bothers the officer. He changes his mind.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man: Two-14, can you advice us. We're going to start heading back that way just in case, advise us if he gets word that he's 10-19.

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

Now listen how the dispatcher relays that information to the State Highway Patrol.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Woman: They have a trooper in the ditch and they're ordering an ambulance. They are also trying to get Life Flight.

SULLIVAN: 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.

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

Mr. MIKE WILLIAMS (Assistant Chief of Police, Chattanooga Police Department): In the case of a large-scale disaster, we all have to be able to go on the radio and talk to each other.

SULLIVAN Mike Williams is 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 local agencies couldn't communicate during tornadoes and floods.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You had 10 different radio systems, and everybody had different codes. It was a nightmare.

SULLIVAN: Coded police talk came about during the 1920s and '30s, when radio channels were scarce. There was no time for chit chat. They created what are called 10 codes, and then later signal codes. Police also thought the codes would keep things less public. But Chief Williams says: even with different local versions, that's always been wishful thinking.

Mr. WILLIAMS: The codes are no secret. I mean they've been around for as long as I've been doing this, and the public pretty much knows.

SULLIVAN: The real push to plain English came after 9/11, followed by Hurricane Katrina, when dozens of neighboring police responded to New York, 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. And many have, like Midwest City, Oklahoma.

Mr. BRANDON CLABES (Chief of Police, Midwest City Police Department): We always say tradition is the biggest roadblock to progress, and I think it's tradition in law enforcement.

SULLIVAN: Brandon Clabes is chief of the Midwest City Police Department. So instead of saying there's a 417�

Mr. CLABES: Now we just say we've got a man with a gun inside the 7-Eleven store.

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

Mr. CLABES: 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. Just those simple things.

Unidentified Woman (Dispatcher): One-Adam 12, One-Adam 12, a 415 - man with a gun. One-Adam 12, no warrant. Lincoln (unintelligible) item 483.

SULLIVAN: The codes were popularized in the 1970s and '80s by police shows on television. Many became part of common language, such as: what's your 20? � as in 10-20, your location. He's 5150 � a mental patient. Rap music is full of 187s - homicides.

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

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

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #2: Ten-four, two to (unintelligible). You up?

SULLIVAN: 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.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #3: Um, just to give you a heads-up, I have a reporter with me who's on a ride-along.

SULLIVAN: The officer and commander quickly ditch their radios entirely, and turn to what is now the latest in police telecommunications: their cell phones.

(Soundbite of cell phone)

Unidentified Man #3: Hello?

SULLIVAN: 10-4 that. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)


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