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Cop to It

By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City

Broderick Crawford made "10-4" famous
Broderick Crawford made "10-4" famous

Police officers, detectives, and spies had a coded language all their own, that is until TV and film scriptwriters let us in on it. Who can forget Broderick Crawford, star of Highway Patrol, introducing 10-4 into our lexicon? Who can remember? It was in 1955. 10-4 was code for “okay,” “affirmative,” and has been replaced of late with copy or copy that.

I’m a TV crime series junkie – all the Law & Orders, Criminal Minds, The Americans, the lettered series (NCIS, S.W.A.T. the FBIs) and the newbies, The Rookies and The Rookies Feds, to name a few. Their succinct language has crept into my everyday vernacular.

Last week I asked my assistant, Viv, to put out a BOLO for Arnold’s Organic Thin-Sliced 22 Grains & Seeds Bread…and she knew that BOLO meant “Be On The Lookout.”

Police and Detective Parlance

If you didn’t know what BOLO meant, and you watch crime shows, let me fill you in.

Criminal Minds features the F.B.I. BAU. Of course you know what F.B.I. stands for, but do you know that BAU is “Behavioral Analysis Unit”? They’re a team of Profilers who study evidence in order to build a theoretical profile of a serial criminal. It should have been called the Profilers Unit, but probably an older staff member knew that the initials PU has a stinky sound to it. (Young people might not realize that reference.)

That series introduced me to unsub, an unknown or unidentified subject or suspect. Much to my surprise, there was a TV series in 1989 called Unsub. (Hmmm. How did I miss that one?)

Many of the new crime series use unsub when referring to, well, to the unsub. Talk about new series, on a recent The Rookies, the episode started with the police sergeant preparing his force for the day during the oppressive Los Angeles heat wave, by testing them on the acronym CHEAP. Since it was new to me and it’s good for everyone to know, here (on the coldest day in NYC) is what the letters stand for:

C: Check on the vulnerable and your partner

H: Hydrate

E: Eat light meals

A: Avoid prolong sun exposure

P: Pace yourself

To keep you in the loop while watching your favorite crime shows, here are some law enforcement codes and their meanings:

ATL – Attempt to locate.

Bronx Roll or California Roll (depending on which coast you’re on) – Failure to stop completely at a stop sign.

Phew!  It's an ambulance.
Phew! It's an ambulance.

Bus – Ambulance. The first time I heard this, I was relieved when an ambulance showed up instead of a bus.

CI - Confidential Informant has access to criminal activity and is willing to share it with law enforcement officers, either for a price or for reduced sentencing. If you’re an actor auditioning for the part of a CI, chances are you will not be on the series for more than two episodes. CIs are usually caught squealing and killed.

EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – a fairly new psychotherapy used on victims and witnesses to uncover painful buried memories and details that help lead to the apprehension of unsubs.

Forthwith – Radio car command to do something immediately.

In the Wind – Lost contact with the suspect. May have fled on foot.

ME – Medical Examiner. A physician trained in pathology, who performs autopsies, investigating deaths that occur under unusual or suspicious circumstances.

Perp – Short for perpetrator – A person who commits a crime. No wonder it’s a shortened version of the word. By the time a police officer points out a “perpetrator,” the perp will be in the wind.

Skate – A criminal getting out of trouble the easy way…a witness not showing up to testify in court or the murder weapon mysteriously disappearing.

Stresser – The trigger that causes and motivates the unsub to act out. It’s usually a birthday or anniversary of some horrible kind.

Any of these look familiar?
Any of these look familiar?

Tats – If you’re a crossword puzzle doer, you’ll think “needlework forming lace.” If you pay attention to detection work on crime shows, you’ll know that tats is short for tattoos, that can pinpoint Security Threat Groups and Street Gangs.

Wacked – Gangster term for having someone, like a CI bumped off (killed).

Wagon – Prisoner transport van. When a wagon is in use, you can expect a diversion of some kind, leading to a prisoner escaping.

Spy Speak

The language of espionage is extensive and changes as we speak or as they speak. Here are a few key words often used in TV shows that feature spying. But first, an acronym that explains: Why spy?

MICE – M = Money. Yes, spies get a salary. I = Ideology. Believing in the cause. C = Coercion. Being blackmailed into it. E = Ego. Being an Agent can make you feel real important. Count on one or more of these reasons to take on this risky and rewarding job.

Agent Handler (CIA version is Case Officer) – The one who runs the Agent’s operation which may include recruiting, instructing, paying, debriefing and advising.

Cobbler – Need a passport? Want a new birth certificate? See the cobbler, a forger of identity documents.

Dead Drop – If it’s not safe to meet with someone who you need to give something to, a safe, prearranged, secret location is set up where you can leave it, for it to be picked up later.

Ears Only – Material that is so sensitive, it must not be put in writing.

The Queen Bee at work
The Queen Bee at work

Honey Trap – A sexy babe at the bar, ready to seduce secrets out of the Agent. Or it may be that she’s working for the same side, and sent to test the Agent’s loyalty.

Intel – Short for intelligence (duh!)…meaning useful information, usually concerning a person of interest or the enemy.

Legend – (Has nothing to do with John, the singer.) It has to do with an Agent who is going in deep dive undercover and needs an entire artificial life history and the documents that go with it. (Get the cobbler ready.)

Traps – An Agent will set up traps to know if someone has been snooping around. One trap would be a strand of hair across a closet or drawer, that will no long be there if the closet or drawer was opened. Another trap would be microscope slides under a carpet. Without making a sound, they will shatter if someone walks on them.

This seems like enough Intel talk for now, hoping you know more than before, but not enough to have the C.I.A. at your door. Copy that!


Photo Credit: Eric Stephen Jacobs
Photo Credit: Eric Stephen Jacobs

Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).

Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.



Mar 21, 2023

So, I think Lydia really needs a black fedora (a really nice one) for reminding us all!

Marion Todres


Mar 12, 2023

I'm going to SKATE on this one. I think MICE describes small rodents that we want to get rid of. I haven't been exposed to a HONEY TRAP with TATS (misspelling of another word for boobs). I think I will just PUNT (couldn't get that first down). Harold


Feb 19, 2023

Lydia's piece is indispensable for TV crime buffs. She doesn't merely dish out the terms but fleshes them out, so we can brush up our trivia and learn new lingo. On TV, criminologists rarely smile, but Lydia's descriptions of their descriptive terms amuse and entertain readers.

Bob Pardi


Feb 10, 2023

I love subcultures so thanks for this column on crime fighters and criminal lingo. I’m BOLO for Orwashers Whole Grain loaf so maybe it’s a bread thing in our ‘hood? Arlen


Feb 09, 2023

Your article should be must read reading for every true crime non-fiction writer and true crime fictional writer on earth, Lydia. Thank you for the informative and educational piece! I can put you in touch with an agent. DM if you have an interest. Take care and keep up the good work! Best Regards, Don

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