10 Codes Are Headed Over-and-Out for Law Enforcement

By: Mark Povolny
By: Mark Povolny

During a major event, like the 2004 Chai Vang shootings in Sawyer County or the tornado in Ladysmith in 2002, good communication is critical for law enforcement, but the way they talk to each other during those events and every day is changing.

Several western Wisconsin counties are leaving a big piece of police culture behind. You’ve seen it all the time on TV or at the movies as the cop grabs the radio mid-chase and says 10-4.
However, that code and dozens of others are on their way over-and-out.

There are 100 different 10 codes law enforcement use to talk to each other. For example, a 10-50 on the police scanner means there was an accident. You won't hear a 10-50 or any other 10 codes in Washburn County though. There, Sheriff Terry Dryden has dropped them entirely. Now, they use a new system called clear text or clear speech.

Instead of radioing 10-4, they simply say "copy," and instead of 10-50, they just say "crash." 23-year DNR veteran Mike Bartz works out of Washburn County, and he says the 10 codes leave plenty of room for error.

“You know it’s kind of like playing post office,” Bartz says. “Every time you pass a message, it changes a little bit, and if you pass messages enough it could change significantly.”

Confusion among law enforcement is one of the potential problems with the 10 code system. For example, in Eau Claire County, an officer would say 10-7 to mean “I’m out of the office.” In Dunn County though, officers use 10-100 to mean the same thing. Technically, the 10 codes don't even go up to 10-100; the list stops at 10-99. In Dunn County, it has evolved over time to include 10-100, and the evolution doesn’t stop in Dunn County.

“The Eau Claire police department for instance, they've come and helped us during the Ladysmith tornado,” Washburn County Sheriff Terry Dryden says. “There was a lot of officers over there at the Ladysmith tornado, and there was some Eau Claire police department folks there, and we had no idea what their language was or how they used the 10 code.”

The federal government decided to dump 10 codes following September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, thousands of emergency workers from all over the country brought help to New York. They also brought their different 10 codes, creating confusion.

“One agency may be using a 10 code that has a different meaning than another agency, so the purpose of clear speech is everybody knows what it is,” Barron County Sheriff Tom Richie says.

Richie is also leaving 10 codes behind to make the move to clear text.

“We started a couple months ago developing it for Barron County and we're doing just in the infancy stages really,” Richie says.

There's also a financial incentive to drop 10 codes. The Department of Homeland Security says law enforcement agencies need to show they can use clear text when they work with other agencies. If they can't, they won't qualify for federal grants.

Dunn County Sheriff Dennis Smith says Homeland Security's approach irritates him.

“I don't really think that they're gaining anything because they're going to have their world they're forcing upon us, but they don't want to absorb our world and how we use our 10 codes,” he says. “[My officers are] kind of put out. It’s really convenient for us and its part of our culture. I guess I don't know. There's always that need for change, but I don't see the need for changing it for day to day operations for law enforcement.”

Making the switch takes lots of time, training, and practice.

“Human beings were the problem because we need to get them out of the mindset of the old 10 codes,” Dryden says. “Human beings are the issue.”

It may be tough for the human beings behind the badges, but its everyone else this is all for: so humans in need get the help they need as fast as possible.

Despite the debate on 10 codes and clear text, most people in law enforcement seem to agree that clear text is the future, and sometime soon, all 10 codes will be a thing of the past.

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