Why Are Police Officers Called “12”? Its Origins Likely Date Back to the 1960s

Many people refer to police officers simply as “12,” but why is that so? The origin of the term isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

Abi Travis - Author

May 30 2020, Updated 10:05 a.m. ET

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Source: Getty Images

Odds are you’ve come across several Tweets, videos, and other posts on social media referring to police officers in recent weeks. As you scroll through them, you may notice that many people refer to the cops as “12.” Generally, the “12” is preceded by something that makes it very clear that the person making the post really doesn’t like the police, to put it lightly (e.g., “f--k 12”). 

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Given the nature of these kinds of posts, they tend to quickly make the internet rounds, resulting in more and more people using the term — but do they actually know what it means? Why are police called “12”? As it turns out, the internet doesn’t seem to have come to an agreement on that one.

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Why are police called “12”?

For every Tweet and video that refers to police officers as “12,” there are almost as many from people asking why “12” means “the police.” No single source appears to agree on the answer, but there are a few explanations that people seem to have settled on, and one explanation that seems the most likely.

The most popular etymology (albeit a rather strange one) says that the “12” nickname originates from Adam-12, a show about cops that ran from 1968 to 1974. The show follows two cops as they ride the streets in Lon Angeles in their patrol unit, 1-Adam-12. Although it may seem weird for modern-day slang to reference a 50+-year-old television show, this is similar to where we get the term “5-0” (or “five-oh”) — that term is a reference to Hawaii 5-0, another cop show from around the same era. 

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Another theory states that “12” refers specifically to narcotics officers (not all cops in general). The main evidence people give for this origin is Migos’ song, “F--k 12,” which contains the lyrics, “Aye throw that s--t, throw that s--t, 12 outside.” Basically saying to throw drugs outside in order to not be caught by the DEA.

Source: Twitter
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Yet another theory says that “12” comes from the numbers 911 adding up to 12. But ... they add up to 11, so that one is out.

Finally, the last theory we came across references the initialism “ACAB,” which stands for “All Cops Are B-----ds.” Sometimes, people use “1312” instead of the letters ACAB (using 1 to represent A, 3 to represent C, and 2 to represent B). In this theory, people are shortening the phrase to just “12.” It’d make more sense to use “13” (“All Cops”) in this case, though, so we feel pretty confident saying this is also a false etymology.

All things considered, it seems as though the show Adam-12 is the most likely origin point for using the term “12” to refer to police officers. Even though a large portion of the people using “12” to speak about cops probably haven’t seen (or heard of!) the show, it’s clear that the term has some staying power given its widespread use across the internet and in real life. The more you know!

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