Police Rank Structure


While you may have the lowest rank in the department, you'll be vested with full authority under the law.

Detective Lieutenant Barry M. Baker (ret.) is a 32 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.

Police Rank Structure is one of the important factors to ensure the smooth and efficient operation of any police department. Those who’ve served in the military are familiar with rank structure, and the general duties associated with various ranks. Police departments have always followed the military rank structure, because it’s the most efficient structure for an organization where discipline and the clear delineation of responsibilities is essential.

Sworn and Civilian Personnel - Police Rank Structure

Every police organization is comprised of sworn and civilian personnel, and all those individuals who are sworn have police powers while the civilians do not. Higher positions within the police rank structure may be held by either a sworn member or a civilian. For instance, the commander of your department’s Public Information Office might be a civilian who has previous experience as a journalist.

Let’s say your department has several high level civilian positions designated by the title of Director. The director rank is associated with the sworn rank of major for pay grade purposes only, but the civilian director has command authority over people, sworn and civilian, who function under the limited scope of the director. However, outside the civilian director’s area of expertise, command authority over sworn personnel does not extend.

Civilian versus Sworn Scenario

Let’s say you’re on the street handling a robbery incident. The Director of Public Information, who is a civilian within the police rank structure, is on the scene. The Director directs you to participate in an interview with a television news crew. You don’t work in the public information office, and you don’t want to do the interview. If you say you’d refuse the Director’s order, you’d be insubordinate. The Director’s order is not unlawful, because the order is within the scope of the Director’s responsibility and authority.

This time, the same civilian director orders you to pick up shell casings from shots fired during the robbery. You’ve marked the locations of evidence, and you’re waiting for the crime lab to process the crime scene. Do you follow the Director’s order? The Director is giving orders outside the Director’s command authority, and you would not be insubordinate in refusing the order. You’d diplomatically explain to the Director that you’re following procedure. If the Director would persist, you’d simply call for your sergeant to continue the debate.

A sworn director has tactical command of any scene where there’s not another sworn member of equal or higher rank. A sworn director wouldn’t direct you to pick up the casings, but you’d be required to follow all lawful orders. 

Entry Level Rank - Police Rank Structure

When you begin your career as a sworn police officer, your rank will be police officer. You’ll have the lowest rank in the police rank structure, but you’ll be vested with full authority under the law. Your authority to enforce laws is identical to the authority possessed by the highest sworn member of your police department.

Supervisor-Management-Command Ranks-Police Rank Structure


Not all police departments will have the rank of corporal, but the rank does have supervisory authority in the police rank structure. When your sergeant is on leave or otherwise not available, the corporal will assume the sergeant’s supervisory duties.


A police officer will be designated to supervise the squad when there is no other supervisor of permanent rank available. I’ll use the term OIC for officer-in-charge, but your department may use a different title. Your sergeant may rotate the OIC position, or a regular OIC may be designated. The OIC is effectively an acting sergeant with all the authority and responsibilities associated with a permanent rank sergeant.


The sergeant is usually the first supervisory rank within a police department. In my opinion, the sergeant is the most influential rank, because the sergeant is a supervisor, trainer, and facilitator. A sergeant supervising patrol officers or a specialized unit has enormous influence over morale and implementation of departmental policies.


The lieutenant is the first managerial position within a police department. Lieutenants can be assigned to a wide range of duties from the traditional patrol shift commander to commanding specialized units. The lieutenant is always responsible for the administrative and operational functions for the shifts and units they command.


The captain is usually the first command rank within a police department, and the captain may command a district or precinct. Depending on the structure of the police department, captains can also function in managerial positions.

Major; Lieutenant Coronel; Coronel:

These are all command ranks within a police department. How they’re utilized depends upon the size of a department, budgetary considerations, and the wishes of the police chief. Majors might be assigned as district/precinct commanders or commanders of specialized functions such as the director positions I described earlier. The lieutenant coronel might be an area commander overseeing commanders of districts/precincts, and a coronel may be in charge of all the department’s patrol functions.

Other Police Rank Structure

You might come across a police department with a total of 25 sworn members. In There’s a police chief; Assistant Chief; one major; two captains; four lieutenants; six sergeants and ten police officers.

The structure of this department does not follow any efficient model, and the command structure is top heavy. It’s not a big deal, because the real police rank structure is known to everyone. The ranks are probably based on seniority and pay grades rather than responsibilities traditionally associated with the ranks.

It should be obvious why too many bosses can complicate things and cause people extra work. When too many positions of authority exist, people in those positions are constantly looking for ways to justify their existence. That justification comes in the form of officers, sergeants, and lieutenants implementing superfluous and useless policies and projects.

I’ve provided a general guide to give you some understanding of how a police rank structure works, there is no single, one size fits all description. When you apply to a police department, you should make yourself intimately familiar with that department’s police rank structure. You’ll be much better prepared for any interview when you’re familiar with the ranks and responsibilities associated with that police department. You should also become familiar with unique terminology to that department which will aid you in smoothly communicating with your interviewers.

Related Content for Police Rank Structure



Becoming a Police Officer

An Insider's Guide to a Career in Law Enforcement by Barry M. Baker

Choosing A Police Department
Police Hiring Process
Police Academy
Police Report Writing

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