By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, local governments have spent millions on high-tech radios to improve communication among police forces. Now, Virginia is taking the next step: 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 have adapted the codes in their own ways, creating confusion when they have to work together -- such as on Sept. 11.
Eager to avoid such mix-ups, Virginia's government has become one of the first in the nation to try to eliminate traditional cop talk. For months, officials in Richmond have worked with police and firefighters to come up with a substitute for 10 codes, 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,' " said Trooper Steve Mittendorff, 26, as he patrolled the Dulles Toll Road early this month. "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 Fairfax County, Alexandria, the District or Maryland.
To Arlington police, "10-13" means "officer in trouble." To Montgomery County police, 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."A Simpler Time
The 10-code system started catching on in the 1920s, when police radios had only one channel. Officers needed to bark out information succinctly to avoid tying up the system. But over time, a Babel of codes developed.
The jumble wasn't such a problem when police were on different radio systems, or were not as tuned in to the potential for apocalyptic disasters. But 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 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 Officer.com, 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."
Mittendorff said he worries about 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.
Still, traditional cop talk will not disappear easily. Officials in the Washington area have been talking for months about taking a common approach to the issue, but it hasn't happened. Montgomery has gotten rid of codes, but Prince George's County hasn't. D.C. police have kept a handful of 10 codes.
Even in Virginia, the record is mixed. Alexandria police tried to abolish codes a decade ago but reverted. The codes were more effective, said Lt. James Bartlett, a spokesman, and they limited the time long-winded officers were on the radio.
But, clearly, the attraction goes beyond efficiency.
"It's just our own little language," said another officer on the Alexandria force, Capt. Hassan Aden. He uses 10 codes so instinctually 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," or hurry. Dinner is "10-7 time."
His police officers switch to common language when working with other departments. Still, after years of code, they must make a conscious effort to speak plain English.
"It's like a different language," he said.