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Va. State Police Swap '10-4' For 'Message Understood'

Trooper Steve Mittendorff's first reaction to the idea of dropping 10 codes was:
Trooper Steve Mittendorff's first reaction to the idea of dropping 10 codes was: "You've got to be kidding me." (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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 just an inconvenience. 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 Montgomery police, 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. But many officers like to keep the codes for day-to-day use within their departments.

Some officials, though, said they fear such officers will revert to their own 10 codes under the stress of a disaster. That's why Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) 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 Tim Dees, a former police officer who is editor of, a Web site run out of Beltsville. Not that police officers are alone, he noted: As shown by numerous TV shows, doctors and lawyers also love to snap out their jargon.

"It adds," he said, "a certain mystique."

A Tough Transition

The day after Virginia State Police entered the plain-English era, Mittendorff was patrolling on the toll road. Night was falling, and the radio was squawking with news of rush-hour accidents.

Occasionally, a baritone voice would mutter a "10-46" (disabled vehicle) or "10-27" (requested license check).

"Everyone is trying to remember plain language," mused Mittendorff, an earnest officer with a Marine-style buzz cut. "I've been trying all day, and I keep slipping."

He pulled onto the side of the road, behind another cruiser with flashing red and blue lights. The driver, Trooper Jason Thomasson, 29, had just finished writing a traffic ticket. He and Mittendorff reminisced about the old 10 codes.

"I think they were a lot easier," said Thomasson, leaning on his friend's cruiser. "You can rattle it off a lot faster."

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