Police Hierarchy or Ranks in the United States and What They Mean


The extent to which most people understand what goes on at police headquarters usually comes from television and movies. You’ve probably heard officers called Sergeant, Lieutenant, Inspector, or Captain. The real-life hierarchy involved in these ranks can be confusing, but it’s an interesting thing to learn. If you’ve ever thought about working in law enforcement, or if you’ve ever interacted with the police depts and wondered who has the most authority, it’s helpful to know how titles among police officers really work. Ranks and departments usually depend on whether it’s a large urban police force or a small town sheriff’s department. But many Police Hierarchy or Ranks are the same everywhere. The following is a general idea of which police officers are really in charge.

1. Sheriffs, Commissioners, and Chiefs

There’s a lot of confusion about the difference between three of highest positions in a police force, and it’s easy to see why. Police Commissioner’s are at the top of the hierarchy, but they are also civilians instead of trained law enforcement officers. Similar to the way a hospital director is much different from a doctor, police commissioners have a distinctly administrative job, focusing on budget constraints and management. A County Sheriff is actually an elected official, and their department has jurisdiction throughout the county they are located in. Nearly 5 percent of small towns have lost their local police departments since the recession, and these rural areas often depend on the sheriff’s office for protection. By contrast, a police chief is appointed, usually by the mayor. They are a trained police officer, and they’re simply the head of the other police departments and officers in their force.

2. Divisions and Units

The number of divisions in a police force is entirely dependent on the size of the town or city, but large departments can have many different ones. In smaller towns, a smaller staff of officers usually attempts to juggle multiple roles. The largest division is always patrol, which includes the cops who respond to calls for help and reports of crime and disturbances. There may often be a separate division for traffic cops, one for dispatch and 911 calls, one for criminal investigations, and one for community service. The police also have jurisdiction over animal control and juvenile crime, and there’s usually a department for administration to keep everything running smoothly. In a large city, there are literally dozens of different jobs available in a police force, and only a fraction of them actually involve traditional field work.

3. The Real Hierarchy

No matter which department an officer works in, there is a hierarchy of ranks that applies to all of them. Underneath the chief of police comes the deputy chief, and beneath him are either commanders or inspectors, who normally head up the different divisions. In a local police force, those would be followed by captains, who can serve in similar capacities, even heading up entire police headquarters in smaller towns. Before becoming captain, an officer becomes a lieutenant, whose supervisory jurisdiction includes squads or watch shifts in large cities. Below them are sergeants, and below sergeants are officers. Officers can rise through the ranks to captain through certain exams, but titles above captain are usually appointed. Distinctions within certain ranks can depend on the type and size of the department.

The structure of a police force can vary wildly depending on the area of the country they’re located in and how many officers they can afford to keep on staff. Even more interesting than the titles of officers is how many different jobs they actually do. From paperwork to catching bad guys, the definition of a police officer is wildly different in reality than it is in the movies. In reality, protecting people is a lot more complicated.

Writer Johan Acker blogs for BestCriminalJustice.com. Interested in getting an phd in criminal justice? Check out the best programs first.

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