Police Slang

Police work is a world unto itself. At parties with a mix of police and civilians, you will normally find the police talking together. That is no surprise. Doctors would probably do the same. I attended statewide conventions and found we mixed well with other police officers. What I have noticed and I’m sure you have too is that we all have slang for common duties and items that are particular to our profession.

Here in Chicago, I spent thirty years as a cop driving a squad around the district. We operated out of one of 25 districts. Each district was divided into sectors and each sector into beats. We had one or two prisoner transports known as squad rolls, paddy wagons, or simply the wagon. We wore a star on our shirt and a shield on our hat. We responded to radio assignments by saying either 10-4 or 10-99. The first meant we responded in a two-man vehicle the latter was a one-man vehicle. If we got on the air and said 10-1 it meant we were in trouble and needed help immediately. Those were the only radio ten codes we used.

We’d handle our assignments and if there was no case report created or arrest made we let the dispatcher know we were clear with a numeric-alphabetic code. For example, if the job was a domestic disturbance and peace was restored you radioed in One-Frank. If it was a miscellaneous job like someone waves you over you might have responded Nineteen-Paul. That was a miscellaneous assignment and another police service. Most other jurisdictions use much more complex 10-codes and responses.

Chicago Police didn’t even use the same phonetic alphabet the military and most police departments use. For example, instead of November, Whiskey, Foxtrot, Chicago PD used November, William, Frank.

If you were to overhear a story at a party between two Chicago officers it might go “We pinched two for PSMV and had the wagon transport them.” A Chicago officer with a straight face has never uttered the word Perp. We only saw that on TV.

Some areas call their vehicles cruisers. Some work out of Precincts. Many wear a badge on their shirt, and off duty call it the button. I’m sure there are many different terms around the country particular to that department only. Same goes for equipment. When I came on the job in 1983 every officer was issued a call box key. It is a brass skeleton key that is used to open the old-fashioned call box key that was used to give out assignments before there were radios in the cars.

Our department continued to issue those for many years after the last call box was removed. Their reason was that at certain police garages the controls for the overhead doors were inside recycled call boxes. A police officer could open the call box and then open the garage door. Eventually, they changed the locks on the garages and stopped issuing the keys.

Chicago PD also required each uniformed officer to carry a whistle. It wasn’t a ref’s whistle like you might expect but rather a Traffic Ace. It is an unusual shaped one without a pea inside. You received training in the academy to learn how to make two different tones to assist when directing traffic. I still have my key ring in my dresser and it has a whistle, call box key, cuff key and a brass tag with my star number and initials in case I dropped it at work. It hung from my duty belt every day.

I still carry a call box key on my house key ring. My father gave his.

I’m sure each of you has a nickname or slang term for something we do or use day in and out on the job. I would love to hear what they are. Drop me a line and let me know. That might turn into a radio show, article, or even a book someday.

– Robert Weisskopf, retired Chicago police lieutenant, author