State police stop talking in code

Baltimore police codes
(Jeff Bill)

Cops are starting to talk like the rest of us.

The Maryland State Police became the latest law enforcement agency to throw out its cryptic language, directing officers this week to stop telling each other "10-4" and instead just say "OK."

It's a transformation of seismic proportions — veteran officers who in the academy had to memorize the codes and got in trouble for calling in "livestock on highway" instead of a "10-54" will now have revert to civilian vocabulary.

Now state troopers can just say there's a cow in the road.

"I think it's going to be a cultural challenge," said Col. Marcus L. Brown, the superintendent of the Maryland State Police, who ordered 1,700 troopers to stop speaking in code this week.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommended in 2006 that police agencies throughout the country shift to "plain language" after realizing that virtually every department uses a different set of codes to communicate.

It's a language barrier that many police officers say can be dangerous.

The code for an officer in trouble in Montgomery County is what Maryland State Police use to call in a fender-bender. For a police officer in Anne Arundel County, "10-32" means a "man with a gun," but to a city officer it means "sufficient units on the scene, return to posts."

"They're almost polar opposites," said Brown, noting that an Arundel officer needing immediate help might get none from the city, where an officer hearing "10-32" might switch off lights and siren and turn around.

Still, the suggestion that the "10-codes" be stricken is tantamount to rendering a language extinct, and has thus been slowly implemented. Apart from the state police, the Montgomery County Police Department is the only large force in Maryland that has implemented plain language.

Anne Arundel County police said they're sticking to codes, while police in Howard County say they're phasing out codes and phasing in plain English. Baltimore County police said its officers will use 10-codes while talking with each other, and plain language when conversing over the radio with colleagues elsewhere. Baltimore police say they like the idea but have no immediate plans to implement it.

"There is a lot of resistance across the country," said Douglas Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

Federal officials were not able to say Friday how many departments in the country are using plain language. A sampling shows that police in Dallas do, as well as departments in Massachusetts. Virginia State Police made the change in 2006, and other agencies in the state were given six years to phase in the new way of speaking.

Ward, a retired 27-year veteran of the Maryland State Police, said the Hopkins school recommends either a uniform code system or a plain-language approach. He noted a police chase from Washington to Baltimore a few years ago that involved several police agencies "and six different 10-codes."

"You couldn't design a poorer system of communicating," Ward said.

But Gary McLhinney, a retired Baltimore police officer and former chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority police, said he declined to implement plain language when he ran the state department a few years ago. The agency still uses codes.

McLhinney said plain language is fine when officers from different agencies talk, but not when an officer talks with a dispatcher. For example, he said an officer would be in danger if a potential suspect not yet under arrest heard over the radio that he's wanted on a warrant, instead of hearing the code "10-30," which only the officer would understand.

"I thought it was too big a risk," McLhinney said, adding that even seemingly silly codes, such as "10-47" for "negative," could give a suspect too much information. "They don't need to know how we communicate," he said.

The codes were developed several decades ago to help police more quickly report crimes, easily converse with each other on limited radio bands and keep the public from learning sensitive information. But the language evolved, as all languages do — department to department, officer to officer, each adopting a particular vernacular and slang — resulting in dialects unique to each department.

Grant Barrett, a dictionary editor who specializes in slang and the host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Way with Words," said, "People who write crime novels will be disappointed" should the 10-codes disappear.

Barrett, who is from San Diego and whose father was a police officer, said the 10-codes, also called "brevity codes," were never designed to relay all the information needed. "You always had to follow up with more details," he said.

The culture of crooks and cops has long been intertwined in vocabulary. Police television dramas and even criminals have plagiarized police-speak. The California penal code for homicide — 187 — has been turned into a drama — "Detroit 1-8-7," and the number is used by gangsters as slang for killings.

Lookouts for Baltimore drug dealers still call out "Five-O" when police are spotted — a reference to the show "Hawaii Five-O." Barrett said that, no matter what happens to the official lingo, "'10-4' and 'What's your 20?' will always be with us. They're too ingrained in our lingo."

Montgomery County Police Sgt. Alan Felson, who helped implement plain language in the suburban Washington department in 2006, agreed. "The codes are the way police talk," he said. "Taking them away is taking away a part of police culture."

Felson said that since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there has been a concerted push to ensure police and firefighters can talk to each other.

"We've invested millions of dollars on the technical end, saying we want a common system with which to communicate," said Felson, noting that improved, common radio bands used by police spread across vast areas.

"That investment would be largely wasted if one officer in one place doesn't understand what an officer from another place is saying," Felson said. "We have compatible radios. We need to have compatible speech."

Retired Baltimore police Lt. Col. Michael J. Andrew, who joined the force in 1973, said police officers may recall the most basic and oft-used codes, but he said "other ones haven't been used for years" and that "officers use plain language most of the time."

Codes used most often, such as "10-7," meaning "out of service," have evolved on their own. On the city streets, it applies equally to relay that a cop is on a bathroom break, his car has broken down, or a person who was just shot has died.

And the codes have grown more intricate and detailed. An Anne Arundel County officer seeking the time asks for a "10-36." Baltimore County adds lettered labels to its codes to differentiate between different kinds of gambling and 19 different kinds of accidents. A cop in Prince George's County who wants to know the weather asks for a "10-13."

Andrew, the retired Baltimore police commander, said that "most codes haven't been used by officers for years." He said that if a dispatcher shouted over the air "10-51" — a helicopter crash — "I bet there's a significant number of officers who wouldn't know what was going on."