Plain Talk Eases Police Radio Codes Off The Air When law enforcement officials realized officers from different agencies couldn't communicate with each other during emergencies because of different code systems, they pushed officers to use plain English when calling for backup or reporting a crime.
NPR logo

Plain Talk Eases Police Radio Codes Off The Air

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113738105/113742260" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Plain Talk Eases Police Radio Codes Off The Air

Law

Plain Talk Eases Police Radio Codes Off The Air

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113738105/113742260" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TRANSMISSION)

LAURA SULLIVAN: Unidentified Woman: Two-14.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TRANSMISSION)

SULLIVAN: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TRANSMISSION)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TRANSMISSION)

SULLIVAN: 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.

MIKE WILLIAMS: 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.

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.

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.

BRANDON CLABES: 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...

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.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TRANSMISSION)

SULLIVAN: The officer pauses.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO TRANSMISSION)

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

SULLIVAN: Unidentified Man #3: Hello?

(SOUNDBITE OF CELL PHONE)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.