Police Officer Ranks: The Different Law Enforcement Positions

You’ve probably walked by a police officer without knowing it. More than 800,000 Americans work for a police department.

When people think of the police, they think of men and women in blue uniforms who watch traffic. Many police do sit in patrol cars and wait for speeding drivers. But that’s not all that they do.

What are the ranks of police officers? That’s not an easy question to answer. Every department has a long list of police officer ranks, and it can be hard tracking them all.

Understand how officers are ranked, and you can navigate through the criminal justice process. Here is your quick guide to police officer rankings.


Technicians are entry-level police officers. Someone with no prior experience and a high school diploma can become one.

They assist high-ranking officers with several duities. They organize records and handle new paperwork. They direct traffic at accident and crime scenes, and they can issue citations.

They may help an investigation if another officer asks them to. But they stay at the police office for the most part. Technicians can go into the field to gain experience and learn procedures.

Patrol Officer

Most departments call their patrol officers “police officers” or “detectives.” Other departments distinguish these personnel from each other.

In those departments, a patrol officer may have no formal investigative duties. They may manage traffic violations or monitor a particular area.

A patrol officer may respond to a nonemergency call. They may go to a house that had a noise complaint or look into a minor theft. They can offer an emergency response if additional officers are needed.


Detectives respond to and investigate emergency calls. They can enter a property where a crime took place and conduct an investigation. They talk to witnesses, find physical evidence, and issue arrest warrants.

Many detectives have specialized duties. One detective may investigate homicides. Another may investigate sex crimes or crimes committed by minors.

Major metropolitan police departments may have several ranks of detectives. A high-ranking detective can help with training and administration.

Most departments require a person to have a college diploma to be a detective. It may take several years before a patrol officer receives a promotion to detective.


Corporals act as administrators. They supervise patrol officers and detectives out in the field and they train them. They can give these officers amenities like police challenge coins.

Corporals oversee small units within the department. They do not have supervision over everyone, but upper-ranking officials may tap them for advice.

Officers who show leadership ability and promise receive promotions to corporal. If they do a good job, they will receive another promotion.


Sergeants are one step above corporals. They are not yet in the position of providing oversight to all aspects of policing. But they do supervise units and train personnel.

Depending on the department, sergeants can look into internal complaints. They may investigate use of force violations or ethical allegations against officers. They can propose ways of improving the police department like increasing transparency.

Sergeants do continue to perform field work. They may accompany younger officers out in the field, though corporals generally do that.

It takes years to become eligible for a sergeant position. Given that sergeants handle internal complaints, applicants must have no internal complaints against them.


Lieutenants are middle managers. They take instructions from their superiors, but their instructions are broad. They set a plan of action and ask lower-ranking officers to follow through on it.

Lieutenants have some latitude. They can hire staffers, evalute officers in performance reviews, and oversee training procedures. Higher-ranking officials have the final say, but the opinions of lieutenants are valued.

Lieutenants may perform investigative and patrol work. But the bulk of their public-facing efforts come in ambassadorship. They represent the department in civic meetings and hold talks in schools.

A lieutenant must be an experienced and professional police officer. Applicants must have leadership and public relations skills.


Captains are upper-level managers. They serve as division heads, supervising activities and leading initiatives.

Some captains are specialized. Some may manage the budget, while others act as community liasons. Many captains prepare reports on crime rates in their areas and internal investigations.

An applicant for a captain position must have several years of work as a supervisor. This means that an officer would have to be many years into their career. They must show incredible leadership ability and public speaking skills.

Deputy Chief

Deputy chiefs are found in large muncipal police departments. Smaller departments skip straight to the chief.

Deputy chiefs are not substantially different from captains. They help with administration and provide leadership. A deputy may head a department like human resources.

A group of deputies can act like a board of directors. They can consult with the chief on strategy and offer their input on particular operations.

A deputy can step in to become the chief of police. Many chiefs are hired after serving as deputies with another police department.

Chief of Police

The chief of police is the highest ranking police officer in a department. They are an administrator first and foremost. They have oversight over all operations in the department and maintain the final say in operations.

As the highest ranking officer, the chief maintains a great level of influence. They are often the face of the department at news conferences or city council meetings. A scandal in the department can lead to a chief’s resignation.

A few muncipalities elect their chiefs of police. They are distinct from sheriffs, who are always elected officials. Sheriffs oversee the operations of counties, while chiefs focus on individual departments.

The List of Police Officer Ranks

Police officer ranks are distinct. Technicians handle paperwork and organize an office. Patrol officers go into the field on non-emergency calls.

Detectives respond to emergencies and investigate crimes. Corporals supervise detectives. Sergeants supervise corporals and handle internal complaints.

Lieutenants are middle managers with hiring responsibilities. Captains report to deputy chiefs, who help run the department with the chief. The chief is the top official and the public face of the municipal police.

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