Aspiring criminal justice professionals can find upward mobility as officers working in a police precinct. This is partly due to the hierarchical structure of police departments and merit-based promotion. Attaining a high rank within a police department consists of earning both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in criminal justice and participating in service opportunities.
There are many positions available within the structure of a police department, some of which are described below. Each career in a police department plays a vital role in the process of coming to conclusions about crimes. Here is a list of the police ranks in order:
- Police officer
- Police detective
- Police corporal
- Police sergeant
- Police captain
- Deputy police chief
- Chief of police
After earning an undergraduate criminal justice degree, you can apply for enrollment in a police academy. Upon graduation, you can begin your career as a patrol officer. The specific job duties vary depending on the jurisdiction that you work in.
Police officers are typically assigned to a specific geographical area in their jurisdiction. They patrol this area, providing a visible police presence and enforcing laws. Police officers are also responsible for the following tasks:1
- Identifying traffic violations and issuing traffic tickets
- Responding at the site of car accidents and assisting survivors
- Responding to emergency calls
- Using field computers to search for active warrants
- Arresting and detaining suspects of a crime
- Writing official reports and testifying in court
After putting in some time as a police officer, you may decide to work toward becoming a police detective. Every police department maintains its own requirements for police officers to attain this rank.
You will need to have at least a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice along with a minimum amount of experience working in the field. Police detectives are expected to be critical thinkers and effective communicators. They must be capable of analytical reasoning, sound judgment and a high degree of professionalism.
Detectives respond to crime scenes, typically after other police officers have blocked off the area from the public. Their primary responsibility at the scene of a crime is to gather facts and evidence that can lead them to suspects, victims and witnesses. They collect physical evidence, examine records and collaborate with other professionals in the department. Their goal is to investigate crimes, identify suspects and support the prosecutor in proving a suspect’s guilt in court.
There are a few important steps to pursuing a career as a police detective:2
- Obtain a degree in criminology, criminal justice, sociology or a related area
- Enroll in a police academy and gain experience in investigation
- Take the Police Detective 200 Series test
- Fulfill the credit requirements for the state that you reside in
Police corporal is a position in criminal justice management. A corporal is a supervisor who typically oversees a small group of other officers. Police corporals attain their rank by demonstrating exemplary leadership skills and a strong commitment to professional ethics. Corporals often work in the field and serve as liaisons between their officers and superiors.
Some of the major responsibilities of a police corporal include:3
- Regulating traffic during times of distress
- Ensuring safety on the streets
- Ensuring that the police department is following rules and policies
- Helping in other areas of the police department as needed (e.g., at crime scenes)
- Managing records of past investigative cases
The next position in a police department’s hierarchy is police sergeant. Sergeants supervise a squad or unit of police officers. Sergeants often investigate internal complaints made by lower-ranking officers. In addition, police sergeants are usually responsible for the following tasks:
- Supervising and training personnel
- Interpreting and applying local and statewide ordinances
- Developing new department policies
- Serving as a liaison between upper and lower management
To continue advancing in your career, seek opportunities for new assignments and additional training in the police department. This will show others that you have an interest in learning and taking on new challenges.
Police captains typically serve as the commanding officers for a patrol officer or detective division. They oversee organizational activities, train and supervise personnel, develop programs and enforce departmental policies. Captains may also be responsible for serving as the public face of the department.
To become a police captain, you must complete several steps: 4
- Obtain a high school diploma
- Get a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement, criminal justice or a similar field
- Train at the police academy and become a police officer
- Work between nine and 20 years in a police department
- Consistently improve your skills at each ranking level and rise through the ranks
Deputy Police Chief
Police captains report to deputy police chiefs or directly to the chief of police, depending on the size of the department. The role of the deputy police chief is similar to that of the police captain. When the chief of police is unavailable or otherwise engaged, the deputy police chief may temporarily step in and take over the chief of police’s duties. This requires deputy police chiefs to be familiar with the department’s activities, policies and officers at all times.
The role of a deputy police chief is very important. To earn this rank, you need at least a bachelor’s degree and several years of experience working in a police department.
Chief of Police
The chief of police is like the chief executive officer (CEO) of a company. Police chiefs are at the top of the chain of command in police departments. They are responsible for overseeing the entire department through their subordinate officers, including its budget, operations, programs and activities.
Chiefs of police often work closely with top city officials like the mayor and city manager. They may also need to interact with members of the media and community organizations.
You can start your journey through the criminal justice system by earning your criminal justice degree at Grand Canyon University. Our Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies provides foundational knowledge in law, criminal behavior, criminal procedure and threat assessment. After earning this degree, you can become qualified for high-level ranks by enrolling in our Master of Science in Criminal Justice with an Emphasis in Law Enforcement degree program online at GCU.
Learn more about the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the many degrees offered both online and on campus.
1 The Balance Careers, Police Officer Career Advancement Timeline in August 2022
2 Forensics College, How to Become a Detective in August 2022
3 City of Turlock, Police Corporals in August 2022
4 Best Accredited Colleges, How Long Does it take to become a police captain in August 2022
Approved by Faculty Member in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Sept. 19, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.