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What are the ranks of police officers?

A list of common metropolitan police ranks from lowest to highest, plus an overview of sheriff’s department and state police ranks

By Police1 Staff

The police ranks of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. vary between individual departments, but most are based on the order of military ranks.

To get promoted, officers are required to serve a certain amount of time at each level of the department. They must also take written exams and interview with superior officers before advancing to the next police rank.

Here’s a general outline of the police ranks commonly used by metropolitan departments, ranked from lowest to highest:

Police officer

A police officer is the most common kind of sworn officer in any given metropolitan department. They can perform a variety of roles including patrolling the streets, responding to the scene of a crime or accident, and participating in community awareness efforts.

There are several different police pay grades that LEOs may qualify for after reaching certain milestones. Newer officers usually receive a pay bump after they successfully complete their probationary period, which may last between one to four years. A new police officer beginning their probationary period will start at the lowest police rank. However, they have the opportunity to specialize in areas like field training, or media coordinators.

After racking up some experience, police officers may also join more specialized units such as a SWAT team, a canine unit, or bomb squad.

Officers may be promoted to corporal status, which allows may include duties like detective work, field training and watch commander.

Police detective

Police detectives are usually assigned to a specialized division – such as narcotics, gang activity, or robbery – and investigate a specific kind of crime.

In some departments, like the LAPD, detectives are the only sworn-in officers that wear business attire or street clothes instead of their issued uniform. They can use their disguised appearance to blend into crowds and prevent crimes before they happen.

As a detective, it’s possible to assume a supervisory role. A higher-ranking detective might review reports prepared by subordinates, and assume a leadership role in high-profile homicides or robberies.

Police corporal

In addition to supervisory responsibilities, corporals still patrol and investigate. They may take over the duties of a police sergeant in case of absence.

Police sergeant

Sergeants supervise and train their subordinates. They may also coordinate activity at crime scenes, making sure department policies and procedures are applied to law enforcement activities.

Sergeants frequently assume roles like professional standards investigator to ensure that personnel and equipment are maintained to department standards.

Since they act as liaisons between upper management and subordinates, the role of police sergeant requires strong interpersonal leadership ability.

Police lieutenant

Police lieutenant roles are usually administrative. They attend meetings and serve on various committees related to their unit of command.

Lieutenants make sure the department is running smoothly, so they may be responsible for tasks like preparing budgets, maintaining supplies, and ensuring a harassment and discrimination-free workplace.

Police lieutenants act as assistants to police captains, and may even take their place as commanding officers in case of absence.

Police captain

Police captains manage specific divisions within the department, like vice or homicide. They direct work and evaluate their team’s performance through written reports.

Captains are also responsible for making sure officers and detectives are complying with department policies and standards. They may also hire civilian personnel to work within their division.

In some metropolitan departments, the rank of police captain is the highest rank achieved by Civil Service promotion. Ranks above captain may be appointed by the chief of police.

Above police captain, some departments may have police majors and police colonels. Departments may also use the term police inspector to describe certain high-ranking officials above the captain.

Deputy chief

Next is the deputy chief, who may serve as the bureau commander for activities such as patrol, investigations, or support.

In larger metropolitan areas such as New York City, the deputy chief may be assisted by assistant chiefs.

Assistant chief

This position doesn’t exist everywhere, but large metropolitan departments may have multiple assistant chiefs

Chief of police

The chief of police is the department’s highest-ranking officer.

The chief of police manages the police department and is responsible for maintaining efficient operations within the department.

Police commissioner

In some larger metropolitan areas, a police commissioner is appointed by the city’s mayor to oversee multiple departments. The equivalent of this position may also be called a police superintendent.

However, the police commissioner isn’t a uniformed officer.

What about the Sheriff’s Department?

The sheriff’s department is a county police force. In some rural areas, the county sheriff’s department is the only law enforcement agency and has a full roster of duties, including undertaking investigations and making arrests. In metropolitan areas, the sheriff’s department’s sole mandate might be the transportation of prisoners, providing courthouse security and serving summonses. The sheriff is the top-ranking officer in the department and is almost always an elected official. The assistant sheriff or under-sheriff is the next in line of police ranks in the department, followed by division chief, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, corporal and deputy. A deputy sheriff is essentially the same rank as a police officer.

State Police Ranks

The state police force (also called state patrol or highway patrol) is responsible for enforcing the law within an entire state’s boundaries. The state police are under the auspices of each state’s Department of Public Safety and are based on a military model, with especially stringent training procedures in most places. The police ranks of this law enforcement agency are similar to that of military rankings. The top police ranking is colonel. Below colonel is the rank of lieutenant colonel, then major, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, trooper first class, and trooper.

Because of the variance of police ranks within various law enforcement agencies, it’s best to check the specific agency that’s of interest to you in order to get a clearer picture of the individual rankings.

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This article, originally published September 21, 2016, has been updated.