A Guide to Police Ranks in Order
The ranks of police are important to understand for anyone, whether you are looking to become a law enforcement officer as a career, or if you’re a civilian who’s interested in learning more about the law enforcement officers in their community.
What Are the Ranks of Police?
Police ranks and responsibilities often vary by department. For example, the probationary period for new officers may be longer or shorter, some ranks may not exist in all departments, and certain high-level ranks may be appointed or elected. Here, we’ll take a look at the average police ranks in order and the responsibilities of each police rank.
A police officer is typically the lowest ranking officer, and also the most common type of law enforcement officer. By some estimates, there are around 900,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the U.S. A police officer’s duties will vary, but daily duties largely consist of activities such as enforcing laws, patrolling for active crimes or traffic violations, and responding in the event of emergencies. Depending on the location, becoming a police officer can be highly competitive, and you must have completed training in a police academy prior to becoming a sworn police officer. However, demand for police is expected to grow by roughly 3% through 2031.
Additional education in criminal justice or forensics can also make you a more attractive candidate. Most officers will undergo a probationary period after becoming a sworn officer. This probationary period can vary significantly depending on the department, but can last from 3 months to a year, to 18 months, or even longer in some cases. Following this probationary period, officers can begin receiving additional training and specializations, becoming involved with K-9 units, bomb squads, aviation units, or a myriad of other police units.
Detectives gather facts, document and collect evidence, and interview witnesses of crimes. Depending on the size of a police department, a detective might be assigned to a specific division that focuses on one particular type of crime, such as sex crimes, homicide, or cybercrime detectives. Becoming a detective typically requires several years of experience working as a police officer. During that time, you’ll learn many of the investigative skills that are necessary for becoming a detective.
Detective work ensures that arrests are backed up by solid, unimpeachable evidence, which means that an acute attention to detail, sharp critical thinking skills, and a cool head are essentials for becoming a detective. While becoming a police officer can be challenging, becoming a detective is more difficult. First, detectives typically need to pass a test to become a detective, but there may be a lot of competition, so you need to do outstanding work during your time as an officer to achieve the promotion. Depending on the department, detectives may also have supervisory duties in addition to their daily work.
In most police departments, a corporal’s role is a hybrid between an officer and a detective, with additional responsibilities as well. A corporal will perform regular duties such as patrolling and investigating crimes and other incidents, but they often take on other responsibilities such as ensuring that department policies are being followed, reviewing reports submitted by officers, and assists with preparing reports for trial cases. A corporal is one of the first roles in which you have authority over other officers or detectives, so it requires true leadership. Detectives and officers who demonstrate integrity and leadership in their roles may be rewarded with a promotion to the rank of corporal.
Police sergeants are usually the highest ranking officer prior to entering a role that’s primarily administrative in function. Sergeants are responsible for things such as training lower ranking officers, assessing and ensuring professional standards are being maintained and adhered to, and even developing department policies.
The role of a sergeant is essential to police departments, as they take on the responsibility for relaying communications, policies, and other directives from higher ranking, largely administrative positions, to lower ranking officers. This role is vitally important for ensuring that a department’s actions are cohesive and consistently adhered to throughout the ranks.
Lieutenants are one of the first roles in the typical police department that is primarily administrative. However, that’s not to say this role is unimportant by any means. A lieutenant can be thought of like an air-traffic controller for a police department: just as an air-traffic controlled assesses incoming and outgoing flights and gives directions and permissions to pilots and crews, a lieutenant takes the goals and directives from their superiors and turn them into actionable items for their subordinates who then carry out those goals.
Additionally, a lieutenant may be involved with hiring and disciplinary decisions, teaching lower-ranking officers, indexing evidence, public relations and community engagement, and much more depending on the department.
Police captains are responsible for specific divisions within a police department, and are the internal face of their respective department, representing it in internal meetings, advocating for it, and preparing reports that demonstrate the results it has produced.
Naturally, a captain will also assess the performance of the officers, detectives, and others who work within their division, and review and summarize the various reports and documents produced by their subordinates. Captains are also responsible for ensuring that their respective department is compliant with department policy and that their budgets are used appropriately.
In most police departments, the deputy chief is responsible for commanding patrol, investigations, and other internal processes. As you might have guessed from their rank’s title, a deputy chief will also fill in for the chief of police in their absence.
Chief of Police
While police departments don’t have a CEO, if they did, it would probably be the chief of police. Chief of police is the highest rank in a police department, with the exception of large departments like New York City, Los Angeles, or other major cities, which may have a police commissioner or superintendent, although these alternative positions typically aren’t sworn officers.
Police chiefs are responsible for providing the long-term direction and goal-setting for a police department. This means they create strategic plans for new programs, policies, and procedures to benefit the department and the community. That may mean they create plans to hire more officers, implement new task forces, or restructure existing divisions. Additionally, police chiefs are the face of the department, and typically represent the police department to other community groups, media outlets, and various city, county, or state agencies.
Applying for a Role with a Police Department
Ultimately, each police department is different. The roles and responsibilities of each rank can change from department to department, and some departments may even dissolve certain ranks, splitting the responsibilities between higher and lower-ranking roles. If you’re applying to a specific department or agency, take the time to familiarize yourself with their ranking hierarchy so you know what to expect.
Aftermath’s Continued Support of Law Enforcement
Aftermath recognizes law enforcement officers’ dedication and ongoing efforts to protect and serve our communities. This is why we proudly sponsor giveaways, grants, and complimentary resources and programs to support and thank them for their service.