Any advantage in a tactical edge that a street cop is able to create can help the officer’s ability to be safer and more effective on the street.  Sometimes, it can be the difference between living and dying.  It is important for street cops to create every advantage they can to meet the challenge of the criminals they face.

Especially today!

One way to create a tactical advantage is to use code words and signals.  They directly contribute to officer safety during potentially dangerous situations such as car stops, field interviews, domestic disputes, arrests and identifying armed suspects.

Even though the use of code words and signals should be part of every street cop’s practices, they are seldom put to use by most officers. The fact is they should be standard practice for any law enforcement officer. Over the years, I have met very few patrol officers who have developed and utilized code words and signals to communicate with each other.

To clarify: code words are verbal while signals are non-verbal. Both are used to communicate one officer’s observations or impending actions to the others on his team. Code words and signals are important because they allow cops on a team to communicate with each other but not reveal it to the subject.  Code words and signals greatly increase officer safety and coordination while minimizing miscommunication.


Code words work well in situations where signals are inefficient or impractical. A good example of using a code word rather than a signal is evident in a situation where one officer sees a gun under the seat of a motorist while his partner is unaware.


The observing officer can use a predetermined code word or code phrase, such as ‘Cold’ or ‘It’s cold out’  to signify the presence of a gun (sometimes referred to as cold steel). This alerts the other officer(s) but, does not alert the suspect to the observations and intentions of the officers.

I recall one night working plainclothes in one of New York City’s most dangerous precincts, the Seven-Five.  My partner and I stopped a male who was on foot and coming towards us on a one-way street. He was looking around nervously. My partner thought that the subject might be looking to break into car or to rob someone.

We drove around the block, got out of our unmarked car, and tried to surprise him as he reached the end of the street.  My partner jumped out tried to approach him fast.  It was so fast, I couldn’t keep up with him. However, I noticed the male drop something behind a fire hydrant as he hit the corner.

I knew that if I shouted to my partner, “He dropped something,” it would have triggered the male subject to run. So, I used our code words, instead.  I calmly and clearly said, “Litter bug!”  My partner grabbed the male, spun him around and put him up against a nearby wall in seconds.

While that was going on, I walked over the hydrant and found a small silver handgun on the ground. I then alerted my partner with, “It’s cold out!”  Just as fast as you please, my partner had the subject on the ground and was putting the cuffs on him.



In some situations, a signal may be more efficient. Therefore, it’s important to use a clear signal that the other officers will easily recognize and know the meaning.  A signal can be a hand sign, a noise, or a distinct action, like tapping twice on the fender of a car.

Using a signal in the form of a hand sign may be more appropriate when quiet is necessary. Think of situations such as in the case of a police response to an in-progress burglary where one officer identifies the point of the break-in but does not want to make a sound and alert the burglar.

A hand sign, such as your hands simulating something breaking is a clear signal of a ‘break-in’ or ‘point of the break.’ One example: breaking of an imaginary pencil.  In those situations where you cannot use your hands, (like in the case of holding a suspect at gunpoint), sounds or facial expressions will work effectively.

Here is a list of some examples of code words and signals that can be used.  It is, however, highly recommended that you develop your own set of code words and signals so they are unique and confidential to you and your fellow officers.


Using code words and signals should be standard operating procedure among officers who are steady partners. Officers who work together often or who back each other up regularly should also be kept in the circle. There are many situations in which the use of code words and signals would greatly increase officer safety, efficiency and coordination.

Each situation is different. Each code word or signal should be different.  However, avoid make the list of code words and signals too long because your fellow officers won’t be able to remember all of them. The result will cause confusion and/or using the wrong code in the wrong situation.

The best advice I can give to someone seeking to develop code words and signals is for that person to use the KISS method.  Keep It Simple Stupid!

At the bottom line, it’s all about saving just ONE life.



This is an excerpt from the unpublished manuscript, “StreetCOP Tactics: Tips, Tricks, and Strategies from a NYC StreetCOP” by Sgt. Lou Savelli, NYPD (ret). He can be reached by email here:  EMAIL.


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