Criminal Justice Careers: Police Ranks Explained

Even if you’ve never considered a career in criminal justice, you’ve likely noticed that police officers have a range of different titles before their names. What do those ranks mean? What’s the difference between a corporal and a sergeant? What makes someone a detective? And who’s in charge?
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One of the ways law enforcement officers can make a bigger impact on their communities is by earning a higher rank within their department. In this article, we provide a basic breakdown of police ranks and what they mean. Not all police departments or sheriff’s offices have all of these ranks, but this will give you a good idea of what to expect as you make your career plans.

Police Technicians

Police technicians are entry-level employees who may be probationary police officers or civilians filling a specific role. You might compare them to administrative assistants in a sense, as they are typically in charge of organizing and maintaining paperwork, managing records and providing general assistance to the officers in the department.

You’ll see a technician when you visit a police station to make a report, for instance, or if you need to pay a fine or citation. In some communities, police technicians do double duty as parking enforcement or assist with traffic control.

Patrol Officers, Detectives and Wardens

These are the people we most often think of when we think of the police. The term police officer actually encompasses several different titles, including patrol officer, detective and warden, but they are all the same rank.

Depending on where they work, the actual responsibilities for each title varies. A patrol officer, for example, provides general law enforcement assistance by responding to emergency and non-emergency calls or patrolling a designated area to watch for criminal activity. These officers can conduct traffic stops, make arrests or get warrants, and conduct searches. They are also involved with investigations and preparing cases for court, and they will testify as needed.

Detectives are usually the same rank as officers, but they are typically assigned to specific cases to conduct investigations and collect evidence. They may wear uniforms or plain clothes, and they may work undercover. Most detectives specialize in specific types of cases.

Like detectives, wardens and transit officers also provide specialized law enforcement. Fish and game wardens enforce hunting, fishing and boating laws and focus their attention on the outdoors. Transit officers protect railroad and transportation systems, thwarting crimes like theft and trespassing.

To become any type of police officer, you need at least a high school diploma, and in most cases, a bachelor’s degree or equivalent coursework and training in law enforcement. Candidates also complete police academy training before becoming eligible for employment. To become a detective, additional training is required and most have several years of experience as an officer before earning that position.

Corporals

The next police rank is corporal. Police corporals are first line supervisors, overseeing police officers on a police force or within a specific squad or unit; for example, a corporal might direct the activities of the traffic and parking enforcement squad. Second in command to police sergeants, corporals fulfill the sergeant's duties when they are absent. Corporals respond to police calls and perform law enforcement duties, but they also oversee a range of administrative functions, including performing roll call, staff planning, officer evaluations and training, and communication.

The title of corporal is typically given as a promotion to an officer who has displayed leadership and exemplary performance. For example, in Albemarle County, Virginia, the rank of corporal requires at least three years of experience as an officer, as well as education and experience equivalent to at least 30 college credits; however, a college degree is preferred, especially in a related field.

Sergeants

From corporal, the next rung on the law enforcement ladder is sergeant. A step up in responsibility, sergeants oversee the day-to-day operations of a department and supervise, train and motivate the officers under their command. They spend less time in the field and more time at the station overseeing operations, but their primary responsibility is to uphold and enforce the law. With that in mind, they may be called in to provide backup or oversight in certain situations out in the field.

As with the role of corporal, sergeants must display leadership skills and exemplary performance as a police officer to earn a promotion. A growing number of police departments are also requiring candidates for sergeant to hold a college degree.

Lieutenants

Police lieutenants oversee sergeants and serve as a liaison between them and the upper ranks of the force. A lieutenant might oversee a squad within a police department – such as homicide – a specific shift, or the entire barracks or police precinct.

Lieutenants are experienced leaders and are often responsible for hiring and training staff. They also can serve a public information role as the department representative to other law enforcement agencies, schools and community organizations.

Captains

Police captains oversee an entire police department as the second in command to the police chief. They are responsible for managing and directing department activities, including overseeing the training of staff, enforcing department policies, implementing and overseeing new programs and initiatives, and monitoring and maintaining the budget.

Although they need extensive law enforcement experience in the field, the rank of captain is more of a management role that often involves research and reporting, as well as public information tasks. That’s why most departments require exceptional leadership and communication skills, as well as a college degree, for this position.

Chiefs and Sheriffs

As the highest rank in most police departments, chiefs of police are typically appointed by elected officials. They oversee all of the operations of the police department and act as the public face of the agency to the community. They are ultimately responsible for the department budget and staffing, as well as the safety of the community. If a city sees an increase in crime, or if a crisis takes place, the responsibility for managing the issue falls to the police chief.

While a chief of police typically oversees all law enforcement operations within a city, a sheriff is usually the highest-ranking law enforcement official in a county. Sheriffs are usually elected rather than appointed; their jurisdictions include cities that don’t have their own police departments and areas that aren’t within city limits. The responsibilities of a sheriff may also be different compared to police chiefs, including overseeing prisons and other county-wide operations.

The visibility and importance of these roles means that they require a great deal of experience and education, diplomacy skills, and to an extent, political intelligence.  

Conclusion

Many positions in law enforcement require at least some college coursework, especially as you advance through the ranks. At Columbia Southern University, many of our degree programs are designed for professionals in safety and emergency services, including law enforcement.

For more information about our online degree programs in criminal justice, visit ColumbiaSouthern.edu/CJ.

Related:
5 Characteristics of First Responders
Life After Law Enforcement: Career Options for Former Police Officers