It was April 1928, and a Detroit police officer named Kenneth Cox, along with an engineering student Robert L. Batts, devised a system for police to receive radio calls in their cars. The portable AM radio communication system they dreamed up was innovative but limited — it only worked one way. Police could receive messages from headquarters, but they couldn't talk back. Although primitive, the system was about to change police work forever.
Fast forward five years to Bayonne, New Jersey. Radio engineer Frank A. Gunther, and police Lt. Vincent Doyle, installed the nation's first two-way police radio system for use in the city's patrol cars. Bayonne police cars had a transmitter and a receiver allowing officers to not only communicate with the station house, but with each other. It wasn't long before radio became standard equipment in police cruisers across the country.
At that time, radios were not the digital marvels they are today. In fact, radios didn't even have transistors, but instead used vacuum tubes and a small generator for power. The technology was groundbreaking for the day, but transmitting a signal was slightly delayed.
In 1937, Charles "Charlie" Hopper, communication director for the Illinois State Police, solved the problem by devising a system of codes that allowed police to talk to one another in a timely and more efficient fashion. Known as 10-codes (each code had a number preceded by the numeral 10), it was a type of short-hand. "10-4," for example, met "affirmative;" 10-7, "out to lunch." The 10-codes were a major innovation at the time, and new police officers were required to learn them.
The codes worked because they were short and to the point. However, there was a huge drawback: Not every police department used the same 10-codes, a standardization problem that still exists today. For example, in one jurisdiction, "10-54" might mean a fatal car accident, while in another it might be "dead animal in the road," or "coffee break."
Although 10-codes are meant to be concise and uniform, the ad hoc way police departments employ them has made the system somewhat useless when different agencies communicate in emergencies. These problems were on full display during the 2011 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and again in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. During both instances, first responders from multiple agencies were often at a loss in deciphering one code from another.
Back to Plain Language
As a result, many jurisdictions started to eliminate 10-codes in favor of using so-called "plain language." Plain language means exactly what you think it means. Instead of talking in coded lingo, police communicate in every-day vernacular. For example, in Maryland police now say "disabled vehicle" instead of using the 10-code "10-46."
"Because coded language is not standardized across jurisdictions, using 10-codes can result in miscommunication and confusion when multiple agencies and disciplines respond to an incident," a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned.
The biggest argument for plain language is that it can save lives. In 2005, for example, a police officer from Independence, Missouri, saw a state trooper lying in a ditch, shot eight times. The officer called the police dispatcher to report the situation. Instead of using the city's 10-Code, "10-33," which for the state police meant "traffic backup," the police dispatcher used plain language allowing an army of state troopers to converge quickly on the area. The officer survived, and a suspect in the shooting was caught in less than an hour.
Although many fire departments and emergency medical service units already use plain language in their transmissions, there are some departments in law enforcement that are hesitant to make the switch.
The Problem With Privacy
Part of the problem is that the pervasiveness of technology often means that private information over the airwaves can fall into the wrong hands. People, as you know, routinely monitor police calls on scanners. Moreover, in the view of some, plain language might disclose sensitive information about police or victims. Some also say plain language compromises officer safety and takes longer to utter than the truncated 10-codes, putting lives at risk.
While there's no doubt that plain language takes some getting used to, over time, experts say, police get better at using the new vernacular. It doesn't take long for officers to stop chattering things they shouldn't say over the radio.
Although there are no standardized codes that police agencies across the spectrum use, officials for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are pushing for communities to change to plain language. In fact, FEMA in 2006 linked granting federal emergency preparedness funds to departments using only plain language.
"The use of plain language in emergency response is matter of public safety, especially the safety of first responders and those affected by the incident," FEMA told local first responders at the time. "It is critical that all local responders, as well as those coming into the impacted area from other jurisdictions and other states as well as the federal government, know and utilize commonly established operational structures, terminology, policies and procedures."
Not all police agencies have transitioned exclusively to plain language. In fact, many agencies use a mix of plain language and 10-codes. Although the police department in Lakewood, Colorado, stopped using 10-codes in the 1970s, the city kept four of the codes relating to officer safety, as did the state of Virginia. Virginia State Police even reprogrammed its computer-aided dispatch system, changing the 10-code calls into plain language abbreviations. The system can send the messages wirelessly and over text SMS.