For people who don’t work in any field of law enforcement, you may have heard certain terms or phrases used by police officers and you’ve been wondering what they mean.

Well, law enforcement has an entirely unique lingo; this is why you have no clue what they’re saying.

One of the aims of this “police jargon” is to ensure a feeling of unity among officers and also to provide the best way of communication between them.

These kinds of codes or police jargon began from the 1920s to 1960s, as radio communication between police officers became more rampant.

This was because radio traffic needed to be kept low to ensure that communication lines don’t get jammed.

However, in contemporary times with the advancement in technology, most of these terms used in police lingo are to quickly spread useful information about a criminal occurrence to officers on the ground.


Initially, police lingo may look pointless or too difficult for servicemen to understand but these seemingly “meaningless” terms serve a huge purpose.

It may seem that the whole purpose of using these acronyms is for the communication between two law enforcement men to stay encrypted from the public, but this is not so.

It may be part of the reason but the primary purpose of making use of law enforcement jargon is to keep the information being passed across straight to the point and short.

Aside from this, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is big on short transmissions; this is with the aim of saving bandwidth.

If huge volumes of radio transmissions are passed across through the airwaves it restricts its use for other reasons.

What’s more, these short and concise abbreviations are very important for the safety of law enforcement officials, whether at traffic lights, following up a car jack, or patrolling.

The primary aim of the officer should be solving the task at hand or effectively handling the subject they are engaging with, without having to spend so much time trying to alert other officers on what’s happening.

To elaborate some more, in 2016, 56 law enforcement officers in the United States were killed in the line of duty, with 26 of them killed by gunfire.

This shows what officers have to deal with on a daily basis.

In the line of fire, every second matters and these codes can help an officer quickly get information about a situation before it gets worse.

As far as security matters are concerned, every single second and minute counts and the sooner the right information is passed to the right person, the higher the chances of lives being saved.

In the United States, for every one million civilian, there are a hundred thousand police officers and in order to ensure smooth operations with such a huge difference ratio, law enforcement agents must be able to communicate quickly and efficiently with each other and this communication is most effective through codes.

Police Officers Chart

Source: PSMag


Ever been driving or in traffic somewhere and you suddenly see a police vehicle speed passed you with its siren blaring and lights flashing?

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably thought about how they all knew where to go and where they were going at the same time.

That’s actually a valid train of thought because someone sent them there and informed them they were needed in that particular location, most times, urgently, which is why they zoom past like that.

Often times, it was a police dispatcher who directed them to that location. Police dispatchers are extremely important to the law enforcement agency.

They may be overlooked most times but are a vital aspect to the success of police officers in the field.


As we saw above police dispatchers are responsible for passing across distress calls to the officers on patrol.

Do not be mistaken, as easy as sending short police jargon acronyms to other law enforcement servicemen sounds, it can be very stressful.

More often, dispatchers also double as 911 operators, this entails receiving distress calls and then dispatching officers to the location of the call using concise terms.

Dispatchers usually receive the first contact with the distressed persons before other law enforcement agents do. This is why using short codes or lingo is essential.

Most times the cause of call could be extremely urgent and trying to pass the information regularly to police officers around that location could slow the response time down.

There are many kinds of lingos, slangs and acronyms used by law enforcement agents, but for the sake of this article, we will be examining a common police jargon known as BOLO.

I’m pretty sure you must have heard this word being used by police officers and you have wondered what on earth a BOLO is.

Here is what BOLO is not, BOLO is not a new weapon used by the police neither is it the name of a new software used by law enforcement agents. What then is BOLO?


BOLO is an acronym for “Be on the Lookout”.

It’s majorly used by law enforcement agents to send information to officers in other parts of a city or country to be on the lookout for a fugitive, criminal or law offender that is on the run.

It could also be used for missing persons or stolen items.

When an officer calls another and says “BOLO for a blonde man driving a red SUV with a shattered windscreen”, what the message simply means is the receiver of the call should be on the Lookout for any blonde man driving a red SUV with a broken windscreen.

It could probably be that the blonde man caused an accident and he fled the accident scene or that he was involved in a shootout with the police and he is on the run.

Once the police officer receives the call, he starts paying attention to every car that passes by him especially if it is a red vehicle and once he identifies the car, he can flag it down and have the driver arrested or call for backup if there is a need for backup.

Most often a BOLO signal is sent to many officers at a time.

If a crime is committed and the culprit is on the run, all cops in the city and the ones at the different entry and exit points of the city including airports, seaports, train and bus station etc are alerted and they all swing into action to make sure that the criminal is caught.


A BOLO is issued mostly in a situation where there is a criminal on the run from law enforcement agents.

Most times people break the law and instead of paying for the offense, they try to play smart and send the police on a wild goose chase after them.

It could be that there was an officer that witnessed the crime and could not arrest the criminal because he was overpowered or the crime was reported via a 911 call and the description of the culprit was given.

Once the law enforcement agents get this report, they swing into action immediately and send a message to all their men stationed at the different corners of the city to be on the Lookout for the criminal.

A BOLO can be issued for a serial rapist or killer, a kidnapper, a robber, a gang of thieves, members of a drug cartel, smugglers, traffickers, and even drunk drivers.

There is no specific crime that a person has to commit before a BOLO is issued on him, as far as the person is considered a threat to the society or they’re absconding from paying for his offense, a BOLO is placed on him to make sure he is arrested.

A BOLO can also be issued on a person that is missing. When people get missing and their families can’t get in touch with them to know their whereabouts and safety, a report is made to the cops and a BOLO is sent out to other officers to be on the lookout for the missing person.

This will help in finding the missing person fast, it could be that the person was involved in an accident and didn’t have an ID on him for identification or he was kidnapped or mugged.

Whatever the circumstance surrounding the disappearance may be, once a BOLO is issued the person will easily be found.

A BOLO could also be issued on a missing or stolen item.

For example if someone’s car got hijacked or stolen from him, he can call the police and alert them immediately that his car just got stolen from him, he will describe the car and the direction in which the thieves went.

After the law enforcement agents receive the complaint, they signal their men along that route to be on the lookout for the car of the man so that the car can be recovered and the thieves apprehended.


When a BOLO call is made concerning a person or an object it isn’t a sketchy and summarized call it is rather very descriptive.

This is because, for whatever or whoever it is to be apprehended by the cops, they have to know exactly what they are looking for so that they do not end up arresting the wrong person.

When a person calls to report a crime, he is expected to give as many details as he can remember of the criminals to help the police lay hold on the criminal without much stress.

The same is applicable when a “Be on the Lookout” order is issued.

If what is being looked for is a person, the BOLO description will include the physical features of the person and his appearance such as:

  1. His/Her race or skin color (could be an Asian, a Caucasian, an African, or an Arab etc).
  2. His/Her hair color (blonde, brunette, grey, dyed etc).
  3. His/ her  height  and weight (it could be an  estimation, since the reporter of the crime may not have so many details he could say about 5 feet tall or any other height estimation)
  4. Gender (Male or female)
  5. Description of the clothing. The caller has to describe the clothing the person is wearing. This description includes the type of clothing if it is shorts, pants, dress, jumpsuit etc. The color of the clothing is also important. Every single detail about the clothing is important if the criminal has something as little as a handkerchief with him or a ring on a finger it should also be included in the clothing description.
  6. Means of transport used by the offender: a car, motorcycle etc and the description of the means.

If it is an object that is missing say a vehicle, the description also has to be detailed.

If it’s a vehicle the following description will be provided for easy identification:

  1. The manufacturer of the car. For example a Cadillac, Toyota, Mercedes, Ford etc.
  2. The model and year of the car.
  3. The color of the car.
  4. The license plate number of the car.
  5. Other unique details on the car such as a sticker, the type of rims used on the tire, a damage on the car etc.

All these information is necessary so that the particular person or item is found without any mix-up.

A vague BOLO usually gives the officers a tough time because it is easy for them to identify the person or item if the details are elaborate.

When reporting a crime to the police or to 911 ensure you give all the details you know, this will make their job easier.

That is why you find cops on crime scenes trying to get information from the eye witness of the crime, the more information they have, the closer they get to apprehend the suspect.

Despite the fact that a BOLO is descriptive, it is also meant to be short and straight to the point.


Without being told, you can already tell that BOLO is very beneficial to law enforcement agencies.

If it wasn’t important or helpful, it would have probably been ditched a long time ago.

Let’s see some of the importance of BOLO:

1. BOLO Facilitates the Apprehending of Criminals

Crime is on the increase on a daily basis and the best way law enforcement agents can ensure that every criminal pays for his crime is by making sure that he is arrested.

A survey by the FBI carried out in 2016 showed that about 1.2 million violent crimes were committed in the US in 2016 alone.

The same study showed that 64.3% of the reported crime was for aggravated assault while 26.6% was over robbery, 7.7% were rape-related crimes.

According to the same report, 10.7 million arrests excluding traffic violations were made in 2016. Below is a Pie Chart showing the crime rate and the percentage of each crime

Uniform Crime Reporting

Source: FBI

You can agree with me that this is a very huge figure.

You may be wondering how the police were able to make all these arrests, a major percentage of these arrests were made based on BOLO alerts.

If not for BOLO the figures would have been increased by a greater percentage.

2. BOLO Helps the Law Enforcement Agents Not to Make Wrong Arrests

When a crime is committed, there are many suspects, but the fact that someone is a suspect doesn’t make him guilty of the offense.

A BOLO call placed with the appropriate description of the culprit will help the cops to get the exact person.

The reason why innocent people are arrested sometimes is because the cops don’t have specific evidence that will link them to the offender and so they end up picking the wrong people.

Research carried out by Aizman Law firm with information from the Michigan registry showed that at least 4.1 percent of all the defendants that had been sentenced to death were innocent.

According to the report, since the 1970s more than 8000 people who had been put on the death row were falsely convicted.

Below is a graph showing the exoneration of wrongfully accused persons on a yearly basis based on the data from the Michigan registry.


Source: Aizmanlaw

If there was an accurate BOLO issued out with the exact description of the offender, these innocent people wouldn’t have had to pay for offences they didn’t commit.

3. A BOLO Can Help in the Arrest of a Defaulting Officer Who is on the Run

By sending a signal to the other cops, the defaulting cop won’t be able to infiltrate the system and get away with the crime.

Sometimes, police officers are also guilty of committing offenses and if the eyewitness of the crime doesn’t call 911 immediately to report the cop may get away with it and actually fool the entire police force into not suspecting that he is the criminal.

Some cops have been convicted of crimes they committed while they were off duty.

Below is a chart showing the data of cops that have been arrested due to committing offenses between the years 2005 to 2011.

Police Arrest Cases

Most of them didn’t commit the crime while on duty or wearing their uniform but with the accurate description from one or two eyewitnesses, the defaulting cop was caught.

In a case like that, a BOLO is sent to his/her other colleagues and he/she is arrested immediately before further harm is done.

4. A BOLO Can Be Used to Alert Members of the Public

In some cases, a BOLO is placed for the public, warning them to be on the lookout for a dangerous criminal that is on the run.

This information can be passed via a broadcast or through newspaper or magazine publication.

This will help to keep the public alert and make them easily identify the criminal when spotted and to report to the nearest police station immediately.

Warning the public will also help to save the lives of some unsuspecting people that may fall victim to the criminal’s attack.

Sometimes the police may have a hard time apprehending some criminals and in order to keep the public safe and to easily get news on the criminal, they alert the public to be on the lookout.

This form of BOLO has helped to save the lives of many people and has also gotten criminals that are on the run arrested.

For example, if a rapist or a serial killer is on the run and the cops are having a hard time apprehending him, they alert the public to be at alert and give a description of the criminal and sometimes if the picture is available, the picture of the criminal will be attached.

Members of the public are advised to alert the police if the criminal is spotted.

This is mostly done for serial criminals who have a particular pattern or cycle they follow to attack people or criminals that have picked on a particular set of victims.


The BOLO code is essential to help police officers know details of a subject very quickly which aids the speed of their response time.

However, this is just one of the many acronyms in the “police jargon.”

If you are looking for a career in the police force or simply are just interested by such unique codes, by now you should be able to fully understand what the code BOLO means.

So, the next time you hear the code BOLO, you know what to be on the lookout for.

So far, BOLO has helped the law enforcement agents to arrest, convict and charge criminals for their offenses.

If BOLO was not used by cops, more than half of criminals would have gotten away with the crime, because criminals will be able to easily slip past officers stationed at strategic points without policemen or women on duty knowing a wanted criminal or a stolen item just passed under their nose.

For example, if a bank robbery happened in the center of town and the robbers drove towards the outskirt of the town, the only way the police officers at the border and the outskirts of the town will be alerted of the approaching group of criminals is through a BOLO.

Without the BOLO, the criminals can drive past and even wave the cops on duty without them suspecting anything.

With the use of BOLO, law enforcement agents can now work together as one with the same information, at the same time, to clamp down on criminals and also to restore stolen and missing items or people.

BOLO in Law Enforcement Code: "Be on the Lookout"

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