RICHMOND, Va. – Anyone who ever played cops-and-robbers as a kid, listened to a police scanner or watched TV shows such as "Dragnet" or "Adam-12" knows that "10-4" and other codes beginning with 10 are radio cop-speak for "OK," or "officer down" or "burglary in progress."
But now it looks as if it's over-and-out for 10-codes.
The Virginia State Police and some local police departments are dropping them and switching to plain English.
Among the codes that have been shelved in favor of their English translation are the mundane 10-23 (arrived at the scene), the blood-pumping 10-47 (chase in progress) and the grim 10-82 (dead body).
The change comes as the Homeland Security Department presses local law enforcement authorities to improve communications so that different agencies can work together without confusion during an emergency.
The 10-code system dates to the 1920s when police radios had only one channel and officers needed to relay information succinctly. But over time, departments developed their own 10-codes.
A 10-50 to a Virginia state trooper, for example, means an auto accident. In Maryland, it means an officer is down. (10-4 seems to mean the same thing everywhere: OK.)
The potential for confusion became all too plain during such disasters as the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, when Virginia state police went to Mississippi's Gulf Coast to help out.
The York-Poquoson sheriff's department switched to plain talk two years ago. The city of Hampton is thinking about it. More departments are expected to follow in the next year or two.
For the Virginia State Police, the switch to a "common language protocol" took effect Nov. 1, but it's clear that change is not going to occur overnight.
The codes are second nature to many officers, some of whom have been using them for decades. It's how officers were trained, and it's probably one of the things that made police work seem so glamorous when they were kids. Some officers even speak to each other in 10-code off the radio.
"We haven't had any mass cries of blood," said Lt. Col. H.C. Davis of the Virginia State Police. "But when you go out on the radio, you still hear the 10-codes. And we knew that was going to happen."
Trooper Steve Rusher, a 10-year veteran, said: "Every now and then, you slip, but everybody knows what you mean, so it's not a big deal."
In fact, 10-4 is so ingrained that it's fine with the State Police if troopers continue to say it instead of "Affirmative" or "OK."
Also, asking for backup or telling a dispatcher that an arrest is about to be made will still be done in code to avoid tipping off anyone who might be listening to radio traffic.
A sheet with a list of standardized plain-English terms is being sent to all troopers to make sure they sound professional on the radio.
"You don't want to say `broke-down car.' It doesn't sound professional," Davis said. "You don't want to say `dead skunk in the road.' You want to say, `There's an animal carcass.'"