How To Speak Cop — Version 1.0

As a retired police officer and now starving artist writer, I pay attention to others who write true crime and crime fiction. I read (actually skim) more for craft than story because I’m still very much in the learning curve when it comes to writing. Like the investigation business, I think a writer never stops discovering new techniques and benefiting from mistakes. A regular flaw I see in reading some crime publications—the writer just doesn’t know how to speak cop.

Every vocation has its lingo. In my shadow life, I’m a ticket-holding marine captain. An old boat skipper. I know Sécurité, Pan-Pan, and Mayday-Mayday-Mayday. They’re common emergency calls in the airplane world, as well. Industries like film production have their unique terms like Rigger, Gaffer, and Abby Singer Shot. And the sex trade has… well…

I think that in writing convincing crime stories, whether true or false, it’s critical to get the cop-speak right—specific to the specific location (as variances exist). Part is not being scared to use to F-word because all cops and crooks swear. The trick is using it sparingly and not mimicking a realistic alcohol-fueled-end-of-the-night party at a truck loggers convention. Trust me. I’ve been to one.

Setting profanity aside, there are day-to-day conventions in police terminology. Some writers get it right. Some don’t. The difference is in research, connections, understanding locality, and personal experience. Here are the basics in how to speak cop. Version 1.0.

Radio Procedure – The Ten Code

I’ve never heard of an English-speaking police department that doesn’t use some sort of ten code on the radio. Some officers are so indoctrinated that they write tens in their reports. The reason for a ten code radio procedure is brevity. It’s not for secrecy. That’s a whole different matter with encrypted devices and mission-specific codes. Here are the most common ten codes that seem to be universal.

*Note – 10-Codes greatly vary between jurisdictions. These are the most common ones*

10-1 — Unable to copy

10-4 — Copy, Yes, Affirmative, Acknowledged

10-6 — Busy, Occupied, Tied-up

10-7 — Stopped, At scene, Out of vehicle

10-8 — Back in service, Available for calls

10-9 — Repeat, Say again, I didn’t understand

10-10 — Negative, No, It’s BS

10-12 — Stand by, Stop transmitting

10-19 — Return to, Go back

10-20 — Location

10-21 — Call by phone

10-22 — Disregard, Fuhgetaboutit

10-23 — Arrived at Scene

10-27 — Driver license info requested

10-28 — Vehicle plate info requested

10-29 — Check person/vehicle/article for wanted

10-33 — Emergency! Officer Down! Officer in Peril!

10-60 — Bathroom Break

10-61 — Coffee break

10-62 — Meal break

10-67 — Unauthorized listener present

10-68 — Returning to office (RTO)

10-69 — Breathalyzer operator required

10-100 — I have no f’n idea what you’re talking about

The Phonetic Alphabet

I see this screwed-up so often. Some attempts are quite creative. Amusing, if not hilarious. “Bob” for B is real common. So is “Dog” for D. But, I’ve heard “Banana” and “Dillybar”, and I’ve heard “Limmo” for L, “Monica” for M, and more “Nancy” than I can count. Then there’s “Sylvester-as-in-Stallone”, “Tattoo”, and “Ugly”. Here are the right phonetic alphabet radio calls (worldwide):

Note: Phonetic alphabet pronunciations vary in regions. These are the universal ones that international transportation uses.

A — Alpha

B — Bravo

C — Charlie

D — Delta

E — Echo

F — Fox or Foxtrot

G — Golf

H — Hotel

I — India

J — Juliet

K — Kilo

L — Lima

M — Mike

N — November (not Nancy)

O — Oscar (not October)

P — Papa (not Penny or Pork Chop)

Q — Quebec

R — Romeo

S — Sierra

T — Tango

U — Uniform

V — Victor

W — Whisky

X — X-ray

Y — Yankee

Z — Zulu

The Rank System

There are two main ranking systems in the western police world. One is the constabulary like used in British Commonwealth countries. The other is military which is common in U.S. jurisdictions. Both are top-down rankings where they start with an omniscient power that oversees minions. Here are typical organizational charts for the two structures.

Constabulary Commissioned Officers

Commissioner

Deputy and Assistant Commissioners

Superintendents

Inspectors

Constabulary Non-Commission Officers

Staff Sergeants

Sergeants

Corporals

Constables

Military-Style Police Officers

Chiefs

Deputy Chiefs

Colonels

Majors

Captains

Lieutenants

Sheriffs

Military-Style Police Rank & File

Sergeant

Detective Sergeant

Detective

Deputy

Officer

General Cop Speak

I see a lot of crime books where the protagonist is a high ranking police officer like a DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) or a Precinct Captain. These sound good and powerful, but the reality in police investigations is the grunts do most of the work. Detectives, Beat-Officers, and Constables go out there and arrest suspects, interrogate them, and then get their butt roasted in court.

Commissioners are politicians and serve at the pleasure of their master. Superintendents, Sheriffs, and Inspectors are budget-driven paper-pushers. Most Staff Sergeants and Captains spend more time on HR matters than criminal overseeing. It’s the Lieutenants, Sergeants, and Corporals that supervise the police workhorses—the deputies, constables, and officers.

I could go on about cop-speak like surveillance terms. “R-Bender”. “Stale Green”. “Crowing”. “Taking Heat”. Or, administrative stuff that takes up most of the time. “Per-Form”. “C-264B”. And, “Leave Pass”.

Cop Speak Resource

I’m steering you to B. Adam Richardson. Adam is a still-serving detective with a Southern California Police Department. Adam can’t reveal his true name or actual location because of security reasons, but Adam runs two Facebook sites dedicated to helping crime writers get it right. Here’s the link to Writers Detective and his FB rules:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/WRITERSDETECTIVE/

“There has been some discussion in this group about what the rules are. Since my day job is all about enforcing rules, I wanted to let this group grow on its own and develop its own feel without me having to create rules.

I have seen other groups that are nothing more than mean/cynical replies to honest questions and spammy book promos. I hate those.

For the most part, I have been quite happy that this has grown into a very supportive group. I want our atmosphere of support and the celebrating of writing milestones to continue.

Although I am the one that started this group, I don’t own this group. You do. The intended purpose of this group is for writers like you to find the law enforcement related answers you’re looking for. I try my best to keep up with the Q&A, but I can’t answer every question. The beauty of this group is leveraging the collective experience and/or research of the membership. So, allow me to clear something up:

Anyone can post a question or an answer in this group.

We have a wealth of collective knowledge and experience in here. I know our members include a former CSI tech, a criminal defense attorney, a former MP, a former Coroner, and a ton of crime-fiction writers with solid research into serial killers, forensic science, and criminal psychology. That’s just the members I know about and that doesn’t even include the cops in the group. You do not need to be a cop to answer questions in here.

Yes, the quality of the answers will vary. I want to recognize that everyone offering an answer is doing so to help a fellow writer and spark discussion.

Many have come to this group seeking answers from a cop’s perspective and we’ll continue to offer that. I fully admit that answers coming from a cop’s perspective aren’t always right either. (Just ask a defense attorney.)

Often, the reality of how things play out on the street is very different from how textbooks and courtroom testimony portray things. We (the cops in this group) do try our best to give you the truth of what we’ve seen and experienced. I just ask that you recognize that our answers may differ from what research into a subject indicates. Research, textbooks, and courtroom testimony often paint things in black and white, while reality is a blur of varying shades of gray. Recognizing these differences are key to identifying and capturing realism for your own stories.

Sure, there may be answers posted that are solely based upon what someone saw in an episode of Miami Vice or CSI…but I’d prefer to not censor answers, especially when the poster’s intention was to be helpful. It is up to you to figure out what is relevant, factual, and useful for your own writing projects.

I propose we start using our Like buttons to act like a Reddit/Quora style “up-vote” on best answers to a particular question.

There may be some debate over answers, but that is to be expected. We can all learn from civil discussions about the issues at hand. These debates happen in criminal justice all the time; it’s the very basis of our judicial process.   ~ Adam”

Adam R. also has a FB site at Writers Detective Bureau. Check out this link:

https://www.facebook.com/writersdetective/

So, that’s it for How To Speak Cop — Version 1.0. Anyone interested in a more detailed post… Version 2.0 ?

— — —

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a forensic coroner. Now, Garry has re-invented himself as a writer with a based-on-true-crime series on cases he was involved in. Check out Garry Rodgers on his Amazon Author Page, Twitter, Facebook, and his website at DyingWords.

Garry’s newest book in the true crime series, On The Floor, will be out in mid-August 2020.

15+

41 thoughts on “How To Speak Cop — Version 1.0

  1. Thanks, Garry. A perfect followup to yesterday’s Firehouse Speak post. And more thanks for the resources.
    One question. It’s my understanding that a lot of departments have moved to “plain talk” rather than 10 codes because different jurisdictions use different codes and there’s the potential for confusion. My suggestion to anyone writing a book with police action is to check with their local jurisdiction to make sure they’ve got it right.
    Of course, that’s common sense for anything that’s going to show up in your books. Consult the experts.
    I know when I worked at the zoo in Miami decades ago, a 10-33 was the code for a sex offender, and we used to tease one of the keepers whose call signal was Zoo 33 (and had quite the reputation as a … flirt?…) about it a lot.

    • You’re right about the move to plain speak, Terry. That’s more common in departments that have encrypted radio technology but the vast majority still use open air transmissions. There are variances in 10-codes as well – it depends on the region.

    • It was one of the recommendations after 9-11. Multiple departments, from multiple jurisdictions and a lot of confusion. The solution. Plain text.

  2. Great info, Garry, thanks!

    For several years, I volunteered for the local Sheriff Citizens Academy and wrote magazine articles as well as internal newsletters for the department. As you say, the higher ranks like sheriff, undersheriff, and department commanders spend all their time on budgets and HR. More than one deputy told me they had refused a bump in rank b/c that would take them out of active police work and stick them in the office.

    One detective had been a terrific investigator but, when she was promoted to commander, she became a lousy administrator per the Peter Principle (in any organization, people rise to their level of incompetence and stay there). She often expressed frustration, wishing she was still on the street.

    The dichotomy between the temperament required to work in the trenches vs. work in the office makes good fodder for conflict in fiction.

    Yes, please give us version 2.0 and explain “R-Bender”. “Stale Green”. “Crowing”.

    • The Peter Principle sure applies in policing 🙂 Most of the people I worked with in the detective section had no interest in climbing the ladder and going into the commissioned ranks which are purely administrators. The detective department was pretty much a closed shop and hand-picked who go invited in. The “white shirts” were also a closed shop and you’d never get into that club unless invited in… and they rarely invited a detective because they’d be a-political and nothing but non-conforming troublemakers.

      If Version 1.0 is popular, I’ll be back with 2.0 and terms like “scroat”, “puke”, and “pusshead”.

  3. Great post, Garry! As the robot says in that movie whose name I can’t remember, “Input. Need more input…”

    Bring on 2.0. 🙂

  4. Back in elementary school all the kids knew 10-4…it was Broderick Crawford’s favorite code in Highway Patrol.

    Re: Phonetic Alphabet, it’s a bit different in most American cop jurisdictions Here in L.A. it’s names mostly (e.g., Charles, David, Edward). Q = Queen. (Quebec? Ha! We Americans don’t even pronounce it right!)

    • Yeah, there are individual variations of the phonetic alphabet depending on region. I posted the international version that airlines and military agencies use. As for pronunciation, Jim, I have to give you American folks credit for pronouncing the 26th letter right as “Zee” instead of the Commonwealth “Zed”.

  5. Another helpful post packed with great information, Gary. Thank you! It’s true, every profession has it’s own lingo. Even in library land, we had ours. Terms like “waived,” “weeding” and, probably most relatable here, “PIC,” for “Person-In-Charge,” the lucky winner who got to deal with security incidents, exclusions and writing incident or PIC reports, as well as speak with any law enforcement officers that might be called to the branch by staff or concerned patrons.

    Same goes for what I used to call the “chateau generals” of any bureaucracy, namely the high-ranking officials who dwelled at administration offices and had an entirely different focus and view of the world than those of us who toiled away in the trenches, be it patrol officers, IT help desk, or patrol officers. There often seemed to be a disconnect caused by this different in “altitude,” at least in my experience, even with officials who’d started out in frontline work. I guess different concerns. Was that your experience in law enforcement?

    I’d love to see a Cop Talk 2.0, as well as Cop Hierarchy or Cop Bureaucracy 🙂

    Thanks again!

  6. Great post, Garry. You forgot to mention that cops drink a lot of firehouse coffee. The good ones even make a fresh pot if they take the last cup!

    We shifted away from 10 codes and signal codes to plain language in the early 80s. Too many screw ups, with people calling for assistance from 10-61 (a DOA) when they really wanted a 10-65 (a cop). The only signal code that survived was the Signal 13F–firefighter needs help/is under assault. I only had to drop one of those once, when a bunch of drugged kids at a party attacked the aide and me when I was assigned to the ambulance. I’ve never seen so many cop cars and firetrucks scream in so fast. Vehicles were coming out of sewers and mailboxes. It was great! I think we ended up transporting 13 party goers to the hospital.

    In an ironic nod to the top brass, my driving ticket was suspended for a month because I “allowed” people to tear the light bar off of the ambulance and break out the windows.

    • I think police are the last to adopt common-sense plain-speak, John. I sure saw officers getting their 10-C’s messed-up – especially the FNGs 🙂 There was only one cardinal sin and that was to falsely call a 10-33. I can so see the response to your Signal 13F.

      BTW, you were lucky to get away with the suspension. Some of the brass-head idiots I worked for would have deducted the damage from my pay 🙂

  7. Loved the post and anxiously await version 2.0. Until then, show me 10-8, 10-60 is over and I have work to do. Probably NOT how that works over the radio, but since I write westerns, my wild west sheriffs won’t know the difference. LOL!!

  8. I imagine CopSpeak changes with time as does most lingo and pro speech. It certainly changes by region and the size of a town according to examples I’ve seen.

    I love words and language, and the permutations and combinations it creates. Despite language’s purpose to communicate with anyone, we constantly strive to create language that only communicates with a very few. Once that specialized language becomes more mainstream, it changes drastically. Humans are wonderfully weird, particularly the young.

    • There’s always an evolution in cop talk. Some of it’s due to new techniques and viewpoints. Appreciate your comment, Marilyn. And you’re right about humans being weird!

  9. Hi, Garry.

    When I was in college–and that was a very long time ago–I worked nights as a dormitory night attendant in a federal boarding school for American Indian students.

    Part of my responsibilities was dealing with our local police officers in the events that I had a student missing, that I suspected a student was a runaway, and other had other similar problems–such as aggressive intoxication, and so forth. (I even went through the horror of having one of our students kill a girl off-campus and was summoned as a witness at his trial, though I never did have to testify because of a plea bargain. I honestly do not know whether or not our former student is still in prison, though I suspect he is not.)

    Dealing with our local law enforcement depended on the police officers. As might happen in any organization, from a local Rotary Club to a National Guard command, the officer or officers could be real jerks, or they could be very nice guys, sympathetic yet professional. I had to intervene one night when a local officer showed up to our dorm, confronted our intoxicated student, hit him in the face and threw him to the ground. It is a serious thing when a civilian has to deal with an enraged, testosterone-and-egomaniacal fueled sense of self-importance. (He was relieved of duty; I don’t know if he ever returned to his position.) On the other hand, a police officer showed up one early Saturday morning with our student in tow and turned him over to me because the student was more comical than a law enforcement or discipline problem. Our student realized that things could have been much worse and, before the officer left, he shook hands with the officer and thanked him for helping him. The officer was equally friendly.

    What I learned over the years about communicating with our local police officers was that it was easier to deal with them in person than deal with their paper work. When an officer would deal with one of our students, because we were a federal agency and if it were appropriate, the officer would provide us with a short, preliminary copy of his (or one her) incident report. Honestly, sometimes I had no idea what it said or meant, and would simply forward it with my own report to our department head without comment, figuring that the difference in our titles and pay grades put the burden on him interpret the police officer’s language in him. A few times, I got a call at night in the dormitory office from our department head asking whether he should take his own report from the language and intent of the police officer’s report, or from my report. I always backed my report because, as I said, sometimes I had no idea what the police officer was saying. Only occasionally did the police officers’ reports contain 10 codes or other esoteric language. But when it did, I was usually left with that famous inquiry: WHAAAAAATTTT?

    Finally, I have learned that the radio codes and 10 codes vary a lot from jurisdiction to jurisdiction–the meaning of 10-50 can mean something entirely different in Oklahoma City than it does in my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, (though, as nearly as I can tell, there is no 10-50 in the Phoenix code system).

    That’s all I have to say, Garry.

    But maybe next time, I’ll tell you about the own scary experience when I was dispatching one summer for a commercial patrol-and-guard service on a stormy might, and I heard one of our patrolman call out the infamous, hair-raising “ten-nine-ninety-nine.”

    • Nice to hear from you on TKZ, Jim. Yes, officer dispositions vary as much as jurisdictions do. And, there certainly are variations in the 10-Codes across North America. I’m showing the Canadian in me and my experience with many Canadian law enforcement agencies is that the 10-Codes are pretty uniform – the phonetic alphabet is, for sure, and it’s based on the universal transportation system. BTW – is 10-999 the same as what I know as a 10-33?

      • Yes, it does. Okay. I’ll tell you the story:

        I took a temporary summer dispatching for a commercial security patrol-and-guard company for the weeks until my regular summer job opened up. My training consisted of, “This is the radio. This is the transmit switch. Take your lunch break anytime, but don’t leave the room.”

        In Phoenix, we used to have humungous thunder-and-rain storms in the summers. One night when I was on the radio, there was very loud storm with much static on the radio and loud, rolling thunder across the sky. It was difficult to hear any of the patrolmen and even more difficult to interpret what they were saying.

        On north patrol that night were our units (if I recall correctly) 98, 99, 101, and 104. Units 98 and 99 were assigned to rural sectors in Scottsdale and northeast of Phoenix. We had accounts with some very large and expensive homes, and sometimes officers were assigned to watch certain properties closely because the owners were away or something.

        In the middle of one transmission that was sent just as the sky lit up, looking similar to an atomic bomb blast, I heard ” . . . nine ninety-nine.” My minimum-wage-inexperience dropped into my throat and stomach at the same time, and I jumped on the radio asking for 10-9 (“repeat that”). My heart was about to stop.

        Nothing. Nuttin’. Nada. Zilch.

        I repeated. “Ten-nine.” Again, reply.

        I started calling each unit: “Welfare.”

        Couldn’t reach one: Unit 98. The on-duty supervisor kept yelling at me “Where is Ninety-Eight?”

        Finally, when the supervisor began to understand that I couldn’t raise unit Ninety-Eight, he instructed all units to converge on the area we knew Ninety-Eight was in. He also instructed me to call the Phoenix and Scottsdale police departments and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and advise them about our emergency. My hands were shaking. I imagine my voice (I’m a baritone profundo) was weak and shaky, as well.

        More than 20 minutes had elapsed since the radio transmission, and I had just called one of the agencies when I heard, “Ninety-Eight.”

        Holey socks. My heart healed some, and the sun rose hours early. That was Unit Ninety-Eight calling me.

        Here’s what happened. In Phoenix, radio Code 999 means officer needs help urgently. (As soon as I heard the numbers, I could imagine our patrolman down and bleeding, in the hard rain.)

        But what actually happened was, Unit 99 had been in contact with another unit, Unit 98, a call I hadn’t picked up on because of the constant static. When he was finished talking to the other officer, he had simply said, “Ten-nine, Ninety-Nine,” meaning “Repeat that (say again), unit Ninety-Nine.” Because of the static, all I heard was the “Nine-Ninety-Nine.” I didn’t catch the repeated transmission. A more experienced dispatcher might have caught on what had happened.

        The on-duty supervisor had me cancel all calls to our patrolmen and then call the police to explain what had happened.

        As you might expect, the supervisor called an after-shift meeting with all of us to analyze what had happened. I never knew the outcome from the top of the company, of that meeting because, thankfully, two days later, my regular summer job opened up, and I was gone from the dispatch job.

        I’ll never forgot the panic caused by my lack-of-experience.

  10. Having worked back when we used LAPD’s phonetic alphabet, I always regretted the change to the “universal” one. Not only did I have to replace a long time habit, but somehow “Alpha Hotel” never quite had the same ring as “Adam Henry.” You can figure out why that mattered. 😉

  11. Being born with a birthday of 10-4 should’ve forewarned that I’d turn to a life of crime. Writing, that is. 😉

    Some sheriff departments use a separate ten-code, like the Grafton County Sheriff. They have their own ten-codes, with some overlap. So, to stay true to that specific department that’s the ten-code I used in that series. Though I have had many cop friends contact me to “help” steer me toward the universal ten-code. If I had to start that series over, I’m not sure which ten-codes I’d choose. As you know, I’m a stickler for authenticity and using a ten-code that my local sheriff dept. doesn’t use would feel wrong.

    I do use the universal system in my Mayhem Series, though.

    Excellent post, Garry. Bring on 2.0!

    • Hi Sue! I noticed your codes and phonetic alphabet in both series. Yes, you are a stickler for detail with a capital Sierra 🙂 You’re right – the takeaway here for crime writers is to “When in Rome… Do as the Romans do”. I think it’s totally right to write how the actual department does it.

      BTW – Ever hear of a “Bun Wagon”? “Weenie Wagger”? “Hot Stick”? “Turn Key”? “Scrogged Out”? “Flat Foot”? “Dickless Tracy”? “Berries & Cherries”? “House Mouse”? “A Sam Browne”? More to come in How to Speak Cop – Version 2.0

  12. Gary,
    My WIP is set in Australia and New Zealand. I looked at the organization charts of the two country’s police forces and don’t see the word ‘detective’. In the English system, what is the ‘rank’ of your average grunt detective?

    • I believe the down-under forces use a similar rank structure as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who I served with. Although I was a “detective” by nature of my duties as a serious crimes investigator who worked mostly homicide cases, my actual pay-grade rank was “constable”. In the constabulary forces, the vast majority of the officers who do criminal investigations are in the constable rank. There are a few corporals kicking around that might get “wet feet” and the odd sergeant who is pretty much a “house mouse”. If you climbed the ranks and went into the commissioned officer ranks of inspector, superintendent and above – well, there was no need to carry a gun to work because you’d never need it as a “carpet cop”. Thanks for the great question, Alec!

  13. Most helpful. Thanks a bunch.

    I had a scene with a riot police officer and searched hi and low for something like this.

    Keep them coming!

  14. Gary, thanks so much for this! It’s terrific not only for authors and readers but also for those of us who have those phone apps that permit us to list in on police calls from time to time. Oh, and thanks for the Dick Tracy panel. 20-8!

  15. Garry, what a wealth of information, much appreciated!

    I’ve read crime fiction most of my life, and love the genre. (My career has been in financial services and training.)

    Recently, a micro fiction contest on an online writers’ community awarded me 1st Prize for my 300-word story. The readers asked me to make it a longer piece, and it’s now in final draft. The crime scene is in Anchorage, AK, in February, and I wanted a local LEO as a Beta Reader. My web search led me to a retired APD homicide detective. He and his wife are now reviewing my story for police procedurals accuracy.

    That said …. I’m interested in Version 2.0. Here’s why:

    Members of my writing community critiqued my story. One member mentioned to me the difference between a Medical Examiner and a Coroner. And, the role of a forensic pathologist.

    He told me that MEs are appointed and are in more populated jurisdictions. Coroners are elected and found in rural or less populated areas. Often, the Coroner will subcontract out crime scene work to a forensic pathologist.

    I’ve mentioned the above to my new Beta Reader up in Anchorage, and I look forward to his local “take” on MEs and Coroners.

    If you think it would be helpful, I’d like your “take” on MEs, Coroners, and forensic pathologists in Version 2.0. In my story, the FMC arrives at the crime scene, and an officer mentions that the ME is on her way. So, who shows up and who does the actual crime scene investigation of the victim’s body? Unfortunately, I’ve been overly influence by TV crime shows.

    • Nice to hear you found this helpful, Jenise. I’m putting together a list of cop-speak for the 2.0 version so watch for it in the next few weeks.

      Having been both a detective and a coroner (non-elected – I was appointed), I have a reasonable knowledge of how death scene processing goes. If there is any hint of criminality, the police assume the lead role. The coroner only arranges for body removal and an autopsy. If it’s a natural, accidental or suicide event, the coroner / ME does the investigation and the police assist where they can like offering security or notifying the next-of-kin.

Comments are closed.