Police 10 codes vs. plain language: The history and ongoing debate

10 codes have been replaced bit by bit for 10 years, but reform is slow. So why are departments are holding on?

By Megan Wells, Police1 Contributor 

Police have used codes to communicate internal messages across public radio waves for more than 80 years. Where did these codes come from, and how are they being used today?

A brief history of 10 codes

Police scanner
Police scanner (Photo/Deviant Art)

The Association of Police Communications Officers first proposed brevity codes, an adaptation of the U.S. Navy procedure symbols, in the June 1935 issue of The APCO Bulletin. 

The development of more widely used police codes, or APCO 10 Signals, began in 1937, when police radio channels were limited to reduce use of speech on the radio. Credit for inventing police codes widely goes to Charles "Charlie" Hopper, communications director for the Illinois State Police.

Standardization not part of code expansion 

Deployment of 10 codes became a way to protect the content of transmissions should police scanners be monitored. Some departments specialized their codes locally for increased protection. 

California, for instance, famously (thanks to the ’70s TV hit “Adam-12”) uses penal codes, which are usually three digits: 187 for murder, 459 for burglary, 415 for disturbance or 211 for robbery. 

As agencies within the nation grew and unique versions of 10 codes (or penal codes) were adapted from area to area and agency to agency, cross-agency communication became challenging.

Lack of standardization causes problems 

January 13, 1982:

  • A Boeing 737 — Air Florida Flight 90 — crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington. 
  • Just before the crash, the National Capital Region experienced severe blizzard conditions, and most roads were closed due to icy conditions. 
  • Washington’s Metro transit system suffered its first fatal subway crash at the same time the plane went down.

The busiest airport, busiest highway and busiest subway line in Washington were all closed simultaneously. As you can imagine, the area was paralyzed. 

A total of 19 agencies were named as responders to deal with the onslaught of devastation. Each used unique radio protocol which caused cross-agency communication issues. 

Sept. 11  revealed further issues with 10 codes and interagency communication. Interoperability became a heavily scrutinized strategy after the horrific events, in part because of inconsistent codes from agency to agency. (Note: There were other significant communication breakdowns during the events on 9/11, including technological failure of the radios themselves.)

Communication issues were also apparent while disaster relief workers and first responders worked in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped in to discourage the use of 10 codes (and other codes) in relief efforts due to the wide variation in meaning. 

Finally, in 2006, the U.S. federal government recommended that 10 codes should be discontinued in favor of everyday language. Yet, many departments are still using 10 codes. 

Challenges of the transition to plain language 

Codes may differ, but police agencies share common arguments for keeping 10 codes.

Fear of a dangerous misunderstanding is one reason they are slow to reform. Switching to plain language could become an officer safety issue. The protection of sensitive information and the public perception of a lack of professionalism when using plain language is another reason to keep 10 codes. 

Additional concerns include:

  • Forced changes to computer-aided dispatch systems 
  • The amount of funding needed to shift to plain language (yes, switching to plain language requires training). 

One thing is for sure: Plain language is not catching on quickly. Even 10 years after the 2006 recommendations, many departments still use 10 codes. 

Tell us in the comments below – does your department use 10 codes or plain language? Which do you prefer? 

For reference, here is a full list of APCO 10 codes. 

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