Since the Sept. 11 attacks, local governments have spent millions on high-tech radios to improve communication among police forces. Now, Virginia is changing...
WASHINGTON — Since the Sept. 11 attacks, local governments have spent millions on high-tech radios to improve communication among police forces. Now, Virginia is changing the very way cops talk.
Starting this month, Virginia State Police have banned the “10 codes” used by generations of officers to flag everything from murders to bathroom breaks. Gone is the language of “10-4″ and “What’s your 10-20 (location)?”
The codes are as much a part of police culture as badges and coffee. But over time, individual police departments adapted the codes in their own ways, creating confusion when they have to work together — such as on Sept. 11, 2001.
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Eager to avoid mix-ups between departments, Virginia’s government has become one of the first in the nation to try to eliminate traditional cop talk. State officials worked with police and firefighters to devise a substitute for 10 codes for months, finally deciding on a statewide “common language protocol.”
In other words, English.
Police have reacted with a certain amount of 10-32 (alarm).
“My first reaction was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” Trooper Steve Mittendorff, 26, said as he patrolled a suburban road. “How am I going to stop using something I’ve been using all these years?”
The switch reflects why it is so challenging for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to create a national emergency-response system. If someone sets off a dirty bomb at the Pentagon, Arlington County police might be on the radio with officers arriving from other Virginia areas such as Fairfax County or Alexandria, as well as from Washington, D.C., or Maryland.
To Arlington police, “10-13″ means “officer in trouble.” To police in one Maryland county, the same code means “request wrecker.” Even everyday police commands can get lost in translation: In Alexandria, “10-54″ refers to an alcohol sensor; for Virginia State Police, it’s livestock on the highway.
“It’s nuts,” said Chris Essid, who is leading Virginia’s campaign to get all police and firefighters to switch to plain English. “I had no idea how attached people became to codes.”
The 10-code system started catching on in the 1920s, when police radios had one channel. Officers barked out information succinctly to avoid tying up the system.
But over time, a babel of codes developed. Five years ago, as law-enforcement agencies rushed to the Pentagon, they found that sometimes they were speaking in different tongues.
Local “police were talking 10 codes. So were the Pentagon police. The FBI have their own little 10 codes,” said Capt. Richard Slusher, communications officer for the Arlington Fire Department. “You didn’t know what they were talking about.”
Usually such mix-ups are merely inconvenient, but the potential for trouble is clear. A few years ago, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives called in a “10-50″ while working in Maryland, police said. To police there, that means “officer down.” Squad cars rushed to the scene — to discover that, in the agent’s code, “10-50″ meant traffic accident.
After Sept. 11, federal Homeland Security officials required first responders to use plain English in events involving other agencies. Many officers like to keep the codes for daily use within their own departments, but some officials said they fear such officers will revert to their own 10 codes under the stress of a disaster. That’s why Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine decided to urge all first responders to switch to plain language full time.
But getting rid of 10 codes has met considerable resistance from some officers. At stake are efficiency, safety and professionalism. Not to mention cool.
“The jargon is one of the things that sets the cops apart,” said former police officer Tim Dees, editor of the Web site Officer.com. “It adds a certain mystique.”
Mittendorff said he worries about fellow troopers encountering greater danger now that their coded language has been stripped bare for anyone with a police scanner to understand.
“The public never knew what we were talking about,” he said.
Virginia officials said they have created a simple set of four signals for cases in which police officers need to get radio information confidentially — for example, if a suspect is on a terrorist list. As for the secrecy of the old 10 codes, Essid said, that’s largely a myth.
“A lot of these codes are on the Internet,” he said.
Alexandria Capt. Hassan Aden uses 10 codes so naturally that his 4-year-old son has picked them up. When the boy has soccer practice, for example, Aden says: “Hey, come on, we’ve got to 10-18 (hurry).” Dinner is “10-7 time.”
His police officers switch to plain English when working with other departments. Still, after years of code, it takes a conscious effort.
“It’s like a different language,” he said.