Ariz. cops ditch codes for 'plain English'

By Senta Scarborough
The Arizona Republic

MESA, Ariz. — For Mesa police officers, it’s back to plain talk.

The day of using codes on police radio channels in Mesa is coming to an end.

In early August, officers and dispatchers began phasing out the use of police codes and simply speaking in plain English.

The main reason for the change is to improve communication with other agencies because other Valley agencies often have different codes than Mesa, Detective Steve Berry said.

“The things we say on the radio in code may be very different and cause confusion and potentially put someone in a hazardous situation, and by going to plain language we hope to reduce that,” Berry said.

Mesa Fraternal Order of Police President Bryan Soller thinks the move puts Mesa ahead of the curve.

During disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, where numerous police departments worked together, the codes created a huge communication problem, Soller said. The federal government wanted to mandate the use of plain language by tying it to federal funds.

“A lot of departments made a big stink and the feds backed off but they are going to do this eventually,” Soller said. “Mesa is being proactive. The department is doing it for the right reason.”

An example can be found between Mesa and Gilbert police, who often collaborate.

Asking for a 913 tells the dispatcher to send emergency backup and lights and sirens in Mesa, but in Gilbert the code is 905.

Mesa, which uses codes for almost every type of call, will trim down to those considered universal for police departments.

Those include 998 for an officer shooting, 999 for officer needs assistance; and Code 3 for a lights and sirens response.

“It is just endless. You can talk in code all day,” Berry said. “I think it is a good thing. Ultimately it takes away a lot of confusion through more simple communication.”

Berry says SWAT and undercover communications will not be affected because they use encrypted, secure radio channels.

Chandler police are considering eliminating the few police codes they use, Chandler Sgt. Rick Griner said.

“We don’t have a lot of codes for calls so if we decide to go plain English it won’t be very difficult,” Griner said.

Tempe, Phoenix and Gilbert are all sticking with police codes. Gilbert police tested the idea, but police codes still work better for the department, Sgt. Mark Marino said.

Tempe police Sgt. Steve Carbajal says police codes provide precision in communication and take up less radio traffic, keeping the airwaves free for what’s necessary.

When other agencies work with Mesa, they already use plain language to ensure communication is clear.

For Phoenix, officer safety and keeping certain information from the public listening to scanners or from suspects during police operations is important, Detective Stacie Derge said.

Mesa dispatchers compared the codes and plain language and found only a four syllable difference in many cases, Soller said.

“It’s just as fast and there is less chance of making a mistake,” Soller said, “They were trying to keep things from the general public way back in the day. The military uses them and it transferred to the police department.”

Soller, who didn’t use police codes when he worked as an officer back East, said Mesa has about 100 codes, even one to go to the restroom or going to lunch.

“Some people will say it’s a safety issue, but you can ask for a welfare check. It’s not a big deal,” Soller said. “It will be a little learning curve, but it just makes it easier.”

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