Baltimore police codes

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.