Police Ranks: Planning Your Career in Criminal Justice

Woman police detective showing location on map attached to poster on wall to colleague

Aspiring criminal justice professionals can find upward mobility as officers working in a police precinct. This is partly due to the hierarchal structure of police departments and merit-based promotion. If you hope to attain a high rank within a police department, you should consider earning both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in criminal justice and pursue service opportunities.

Police Officer

After earning an undergraduate criminal justice degree program, you may apply for enrollment in a police academy. Upon graduation, you will begin your career as a patrol officer. The specific job duties vary depending on the jurisdiction you work in. Patrol 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:

  • 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

New police officers may work through a probation period. This allows a senior officer to work and mentor new officers and determine whether they would do well in continuing their employment with their police department. After successfully completing this probation period, police officers can pursue opportunities for increased salary and rank.

Police Detective

After putting in some time serving 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. For example, you may 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 strong critical thinkers and effective communicators. They need to be capable of analytical reasoning, sound judgment and high levels of professionalism.

Detectives respond to crime scenes, typically after other police officers separate the area from the public. Their primary responsibility on the scene of a crime is to use their training in criminology to gather facts and evidence that lead them to suspects, victims and witnesses. They collect physical evidence, examine records and collaborate with professionals in the department. Their goal is to investigate crimes, identify suspects and support the prosecutor in proving a suspect’s guilt in court.

Police detectives are assigned to cases and investigate them until a suspect is tried in court or the case is dropped. It is common for detectives to be assigned to a specialized unit within the department, especially in larger precincts. These include homicide units, fraud investigation, arson and countless other groups depending on the needs and resources of the precinct.

Police Corporal

Police corporals serve as an entry-level 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.

Police Sergeant

The next level up in a police department’s hierarchy is the role of the police sergeant. Sergeants supervise a squad or unit of police officers. The specific duties of sergeants tend to vary from one precinct to the next. However, sergeants often can investigate internal complaints made by lower-ranking officers. In addition, police sergeants are usually responsible for:

  • Supervising and training personnel
  • Interpreting and applying local and statewide ordinances
  • Developing new department policies
  • Serving as a liaison between upper and lower management levels

Police Lieutenant

This position is comparable to middle management in other organizations. The key duties of a police lieutenant are usually administrative. They ensure the smooth operation of the department and oversee all subordinate supervisors. Additionally, police lieutenants may serve as a liaison between the department and community. Some of their other tasks may include:

  • Preparing the departmental budget
  • Maintaining supplies
  • Ensuring the workplace remains free of discrimination in recruiting and management

Police Captain

Police captains typically serve as the commanding officers in 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.

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 deputy police chief is like that of the police captain. However, when the chief of police is unavailable or otherwise engaged, the deputy police chief may temporarily step up to take over the chief of police’s duties. This requires deputy police chiefs to be familiar with the organization’s activities, policies and officers at all times.

Chief of Police

The chief of police is similar to the chief executive officer (CEO) of a company. Police chiefs are at the top of the chain of command. They are responsible for overseeing the entire department through 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 in 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 position, you can become qualified to pursue high-level ranks by enrolling in our Master of Science in Criminal Justice with an Emphasis in Law Enforcement degree program online at GCU. To learn more about the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, visit our website or click on the Request Information button at the top of this page.

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.

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