I was driving along listening to National Public Radio this morning and tuned in halfway through a story about “police speak.” You know, the numbers thing. “I’ve got a 5150 here,” means I’m dealing with a mental case. Or “What’s your 20?” means “What’s your location?”
This is a form of communicating that came about in the 1920s for two reasons: (1) to expedite messages (why use several words when a number conveys so much more?) and (2) for security reasons, a not-very-sophisticated form of encryption meant to obscure the message from the rest of us non-police types.
We all know the latter reason is pretty much forgotten. “What’s your 20?” is, according to the NPR reporter, a common lyric in rap music. A Google search will deliver the entire list in a matter of seconds. So much for keeping secrets from us plebs.
The other reason, to expedite messages, might have merit were it not for the fact that “police speak” has morphed, and different groups have assigned new meanings to old numbers. What “5130” means to the LAPD may be entirely different from what it means to the State Police. Misunderstandings abound. When one law enforcement group thinks “510” means “traffic violation” and another thinks “510” means “officer down with multiple gunshot wounds,” you see the problem.
So the police, bless them, have decided a return to English is in order. Not only will they be replacing the numeric vocabulary with actual words—“Responding to a report of a prowler in the neighborhood” instead of the once-popular “responding to a report of an 11-7”—but they’re also encouraging their officers to use plain English. Instead of “made entrance to the building,” something more like “went in through the front door” is now recommended.
Maybe there’s an opportunity here for a resourceful English major to write the definitive decoder guide: “A Police Officer’s Guide to Plain English” to support this reformation movement. The book could include examples of how to formulate complete simple sentences, for those who have forgotten, along with ways to catch yourself when a number tries to creep back into casual parlance.
This is a project you should consider if you happen to be 1098—I mean, “available for assignment.”