Police Lingo 101: How Many Terms Do You Know?

law enforcement communication

When you were a kid, you probably shared nicknames, code words, or even some kind of secret language with your friends and siblings. Or you may speak one language at home, with family, and another out in public. Whatever your communication rituals, you’ll recognize the sense of community sharing a language provides.

In law enforcement communication, the use of special slang and code words and phrases isn’t much different. It not only provides a sense of community, but also an efficient way to communicate essential information quickly. While civilians generally believe that this “secret language” is to keep them in the dark, many police departments actually share their codes with the public. Below you’ll find thirteen codes and phrases used by law enforcement here at home—and around the world. How many do you know the meaning of?


Common Terms
For the average civilian, these five terms are likely the most recognizable.

10-4: One of the most recognizable of the 10-codes, 10-4 denotes an affirmative response, like “yes,” “alright,” “I understand,” or “I copy.” These codes originated in the 1920s and were used primarily by law enforcement and CB radio users. Because microphones needed to warm up and the first syllable of transmissions were often cut off, a “ten” was placed in front of the numeric code. Other common 10-codes include 10-20 (an officer’s location) or 10-8 (an officer is available to take a call).

Three Hots and Cot: A term for a jail or prison stay, and the meals and accommodations provided by the “Grey Bars Motel.”

APB: Stands for All-Points Bulletin, which is a broadcast issued by any law enforcement agency to other agencies, and contains important information about a dangerous suspect or missing person.

Beat or Walking the Beat: A reference to a police officer’s patrol area. While the term’s origin is murky, a common belief is that it’s derived from “the beaten path,” AKA, the familiar path of the foot patrolman around his assigned area.

Unsub: An abbreviation of “unknown subject,” used to refer to the unknown perpetrator(s) of a crime. I.e., “We believe the unsub probably new the victim.”

Lesser-known Terms
Unless you’re in law enforcement or close to someone who is, these four terms may be unfamiliar to you.

Hats and Bats: A term for riot gear, specifically the helmet and baton. You’d typically hear this term when a team of officers is preparing equipment to respond to a riot in progress, i.e., “Grab your hats and bats. We’ve got a riot downtown!”

Insurance Pains: A reference to the victim of a minor traffic accident with no real injuries and who complains about neck or back pain hoping to get a big payout in the form of an insurance settlement.

Knock ‘n’ Talk: A term used to describe a “casual” visit to a suspect’s home, wherein the officer doesn’t have a warrant and is hoping to gather information or consent to search the home. The “knock ‘n’ talk” tactic is typically used when criminal activity is suspected, but there’s not enough evidence to obtain a warrant.

Wolf Pack: No, not a reference to the gang in “The Hangover” movies, but to describe a group of squad cars driving together and looking for a suspect.



Foreign Terms

Here in the U.S., citizens and officers alike are very familiar with the slang terms for law enforcement, from the tame to the derogatory. It’s a common trend elsewhere, as evidenced by these four terms.

The Sweeney (London, England)
: A reference to the Flying Squad of the Metropolitan Police Service. It’s derived from Cockney rhyming slang: “Sweeney Todd” = “Flying Squad.”

Cosmonaut (Russia): A term for an officer dressed in riot gear who bears a resemblance to someone equipped for space flight.

Ponda (India): Derogatory slang term for an officer susceptible to bribes (“ponda” being derived from the British pound).

Blue Canary (Canada): Firefighter slang for an officer who puts themselves as risk when trying to help at a fire. It’s derived from the use of canaries to signal dangerous conditions in coal mines.