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Police Code 5 — Here’s What It Really Means!

Police Code 5 — Here’s What It Really Means!

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed watching buddy cop movies.

There’s something electrifying about two people investigating a crime, trying to stop a bad guy from wreaking havoc on their town.

And, aside from the conflict between good and evil, buddy cop movies tend to have engrossing characters and hilarious comedic situations.

Some of my favorites include the Lethal Weapon series, The Other Guys, Bad Boys, and 21 Jump Street.

Another fascinating thing was how these movies introduced us to cop culture. They gave us a glimpse into how cops spend their day-to-day lives, how they have to follow certain procedures, and how they communicate with one another.

Speaking of communication, one of the main pillars of any cop movie seems to be the use of cop code.

You’d hear “10-4” this and “11-54” that. I always felt that cops had their own special language, the kind that you and I aren’t privy to unless we become members of their special little club.

However, with the internet, everybody has access to these codes and what they mean. So, the jig is up.

With that said, let’s take a look at a few of these codes, starting with “code 5.”


What does the police code “code 5” mean?

Usually, “code 5” means stakeout. So, when a cop says on the radio that they are “code 5,” they are essentially saying that they plan to be on a stakeout. Why did I start the above sentence with the word “usually”? Because these police codes differ by region, which means that different police departments can have different meanings for the same code. We will be talking about this later.

Interestingly, code 5 is not the same as 10-5, which means relay message.


How to use code 5?

As mentioned, code 5 signifies stakeout.

So, a cop could say the following.

Dispatch, I’m going code 5, so I’ll be off of the radio for a bit.

Here, the cop is informing dispatch that they plan to be in a stakeout, so they will be unavailable via radio. This makes sense. After all, if you’re trying to hide and observe bad guys, the last thing you want is for an ill-timed radio communication to blow your cover.

However, code 5 could also be another way to tell other police officers to stay away from a certain place, especially if they are in uniform. After all, a cop on a stakeout doesn’t want the bad guys to get interrupted by another police officer.

Instead, they’d like to catch the bad guys in the act, red-handed.

Dispatch, I’m currently code 5 at the Shell station on Miller Road.

In the above example, the officer is notifying central command that they are setting up a speed trap at their current location. Ergo, dispatch shouldn’t send any other officers to that location because it would be redundant and a waste of resources.


What are other well-known cop codes?

Since we started with code 5, it’s only fair that we take a look at all the other codes on that list.

Code 1 means that there is a non-urgent situation going on.

Code 2 means that the situation is urgent and that cops should proceed immediately.

Code 3 means that there is an emergency and that cops should proceed with lights and sirens.

Code 4 means that no further assistance is needed.

As mentioned earlier, code 5 means stakeout so uniformed officers should steer clear.

Code 6 means that an officer is getting out of their vehicle to perform an investigation.

Code 7 means that an officer is out of service because they are busy eating.

Code 8 means that there is a fire alarm

Code 9 means that there is a roadblock.

Code 10 means that there is a bomb threat so cops should patrol their district to report the extent of the damage.

There are several other codes we could go over. There is code 43, code 666, and even code blue.

However, let’s shift our focus and talk about the code 10s.

Here are some of the most famous.

10-4 means that something has been acknowledged and heard. It’s another way of saying “loud and clear” or “I hear you.”

10-7 means that the officer will be out of service.
10-8 means that the cop is back in service.

10-20 means location.


Hold on a second, why do police officers use codes in the first place?

Police started using codes back in the 1920s and 1930s. There were a few radio channels back then, and seeing as multiple officers needed to share the same frequency, it was important to find a quick way to get on and off the radio.

Enter police codes.

At first, you had your “10” codes, such as 10-4 which meant that something was acknowledged or 10-15 which was used to report a civil disturbance. After that, signal codes came along.

And, an added benefit to these codes was that they concealed what the cops were talking about, making it impossible to understand what was said unless you were a cop yourself.

Then, in the 70s and 80s, cop shows on TV boosted the popularity of these codes and pushed them into the mainstream. You’d hear a cop ask another, “What’s your 20?”

Interestingly, 10-20 means locations. So, when you ask someone, “what’s your 20?” you’re asking them, “where are you?”

Pretty soon, everyone was talking about these and trying to figure out what they meant. And, it wasn’t long before the codes became public knowledge, losing their secretive effect.

In fact, kids start using it with each other just to look cool. You’d see two young children talking with each other through their walkie-talkies and using police code like their lives depended on it.

Even rap music started using police codes. You’d find songs with 187 in them, which stands for a homicide.

However, the system had a lot of problems.

First of all, it was no longer clandestine. Most people in the public already knew what different codes meant.

But, the bigger problem was that different departments had different codes. This made interdepartmental cooperation difficult.

For instance,  after Hurricane Katrina, several offices from neighboring counties flooded to the affected areas.

However, their ability to help was hindered by their confusion with the codes used over the radio.

This is why there has been a push recently towards officers speaking in plain English rather than resorting to codes and numbers. Even the Department of Homeland Security got involved and asked officers to switch.

While some departments, like the one in Midwest City, Oklahoma, have transitioned to plain English, many others are resilient to change because they are having a hard time breaking with tradition.

As a matter of fact, some departments are so reliant on these codes that they will use them for the smallest things.

For example, a cop could complain about a barking 10-11 even though they could just as easily say a barking dog.

However, as more and more departments start using everyday English to communicate with each other, some cops are concerned that their privacy has been impacted.

After all, anyone with a frequency scanner could listen in to a conversation between cops and know what they are up to.

However, the good news is that there is an easy fix for that, one that wasn’t around back in the 1920s. Cellphones.

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