Jul 14 2013
Learning to speak in code has been a staple of police training in North America for decades.
But a growing number of law enforcement officials are calling for its elimination, saying it’d be a heckuva lot easier if cops just spoke in plain English to one another.
“The usefulness of 10-codes no longer applies to modern policing, and I’m of the belief that police agencies should drop them,” Sylvie Corriveau, civilian officer in charge of support services for the RCMP’s operational communications centres, wrote recently in a column for the force’s official magazine, the Gazette.
Proponents of scrapping the coded language say when officers from different agencies respond to a major emergency, such as a riot or natural disaster, they can have trouble understanding one another over the radio because 10-codes are not universal.
This reportedly was a major problem among first responders in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In 2006, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency recommended that 10-codes be phased out and the Department of Homeland Security subsequently published a manual called the Plain Language Guide.
While there may have been concerns in the past about scanner enthusiasts listening in on sensitive calls, encrypted radio technology now blocks transmissions from being picked up by outsiders, those pushing for the changes say.
Further, they say, the special cop lingo has lost a lot of its mystique as translations for 10-codes can easily be found online.
Corriveau warned in her column that as RCMP members travel from one province to another, the lack of standardized 10-codes “may eventually jeopardize their safety and that of the public.”
“The RCMP and other police agencies should evaluate the pros and cons of dropping 10-codes,” she said. “Agencies could maintain between five and 10 radio codes, such as 10-4, which has the same meaning worldwide. More than 10 would defeat the purpose.”
The RCMP and most major Canadian police forces have so far been reluctant to embrace such a dramatic change.
The Hamilton Police Service is one of the few. It ditched most of its 10-codes at the beginning of the year.
Sgt. Treena Ley said in an interview she saw first-hand how problematic 10-codes could be during the G8/G20 protests in Toronto in 2010.
Officers from different jurisdictions struggled at times to understand each other’s calls.
“It blew my mind,” she said. “We were misinterpreting each other.”
At her agency, for instance, a 10-13 indicates an officer is taking a lunch break. In other police agencies in Ontario, it can be a request for road and weather conditions.
At the Peel Regional Police, where she used to work, an officer in distress would call in a 10-78. In Hamilton, it’s a 10-33.
While police agencies have a tendency to resist change, the transition away from 10-codes went pretty smoothly in Hamilton, Ley said, likely because members of her force tend to skew younger these days.
Even though 10-codes were intended to be an efficient way to convey information, they don’t always provide enough information to the responding officer, said Insp. Jeff Cove of the Lethbridge Police Service, which reverted to plain-language calls in 2007.
For instance, his agency used to have a 10-code for a disturbance, but that could mean everything from a shouting match to a fistfight outside a bar, Cove said.
“Clarity is imperative,” Cove said. Now, “we communicate better on the radio, people know where they’re going, what they’re getting involved in.”
The elimination of all but four 10-codes within the Lethbridge force means they don’t have to spend hours training and testing new officers, Cove added. (The four 10-codes they’ve kept are typically used when they don’t want the suspect standing within earshot to hear the conversation, such as “officer is in immediate danger” or “officer needs assistance”).
A Calgary police spokeswoman said officials are planning to have discussions soon about the future use of 10-codes.
But a national RCMP spokesman defended them, saying they are a “basic, fundamental way to communicate” between officers and dispatchers.
“Their consistent use supports precise information sharing via police radios with brevity, accuracy and expediency,” said Sgt. Greg Cox via email.
Cox added the force will roll out new national standards for its 10-codes later this month to improve “clarity” and inter-provincial “consistency.”
The Vancouver Police Department prefers a “hybrid” approach, using a mix of plain language and 10-codes, said spokesman Const. Brian Montague.
If an officer is responding to a call and wants to get a quick snapshot of the person’s history, a dispatcher can relay that efficiently with the use of 10-codes, he said. For instance, someone with a history of violence and robbery would be said to have a 10-81 and 10-82.
“There’s benefits to both,” he said.