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What are the Different Police Officer Rankings?

By Carol Francois
Updated May 23, 2024
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The different police officer rankings available are based on the historical background of each country. Most ranking systems are based on military ranks, which have a longer historical tradition to draw upon. Many police practices are based on military traditions.

In the United States, there are three rankings within the overall hierarchy: unranked, bars, and stars. There are variations between the federal, state, and local law enforcement organizations, but they all subscribe to this basic structure. In keeping with a typical military organization, all new employees start in the unranked positions. No amount of education or outside work experience allows a new member to start in the organization in a ranked position.

The unranked level encompasses all standard police officers, detectives or inspectors, and shift supervisors. There are several pay grades and levels of experience, but these positions are all without rank. When looking at the different officer rankings, it is important to remember that most employees will be at the lower levels. As a result, there are motivational tools incorporated into the structure to encourage people to move up the organization.

In order to obtain a position as a detective, additional courses and exams are required. These courses cannot be completed outside the law enforcement agency. In addition, a specific number of years of working experience is required before a candidate is eligible to take the courses. As in the military, experience is critical to the advancement structure.

The bars level has two types of positions: lieutenant and captain. The bars are sewn on the upper left shoulder of the regular and dress uniform. A lieutenant has one silver or gold bar, and is responsible for the supervision of sergeants, an entire squad, or shift or even precincts.

A captain has two gold or silver bars on his or her uniform. He or she is responsible for one police station, but this can be expanded to include several specialty departments. In smaller law enforcement agencies, captains can be responsible for an entire division.

At the stars level, the greater the number, the higher the rank. One star is used for an inspector or commander, which is one level above captain. This person is responsible for multiple divisions. Two stars are used for assistant chief of police or the assistant commissioner. This is equivalent to a major general in the American military.

A three star ranking is for deputy chief of police or the deputy commissioner, which is equivalent to a lieutenant general. Officers of this rank have broader responsibilities for the entire organization. Of all the different police officer rankings, four stars is the top ranked position, and is often called the police commissioner or sheriff.

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Discussion Comments
By anon299299 — On Oct 24, 2012

How are police officers ranked?

By anon120001 — On Oct 20, 2010

Just trying to figure out where you got your info from. But you are leaving out a lot of ranks that most police departments use. I work for a major dept in the Atlanta area and just about every dept i have encountered has a different rank structure, but most follow this: Cadet, hired but not trained; Recruit, hired and in the training process; Police officer, normal patrol officer.

We use Police Officer I for graduated but still on probation. Police Officer II is off probation and completely on your own. Master Police Officer/Corporal is either given based on years of experience or testing and classes. Sergeant is a test position, supervisor of all the officers. Lieutenant, supervisor of the sergeants. Captain, in charge of the lieutenants and running the precincts. Each precinct has a Major, also now as a precinct commander. And so on through the chiefs and what ever title they may hold, ex. Assistant Chief, Deputy Chief and so on, up to Chief of Police.

Normal rank structures provide system so that no person has more then five to seven people underneath their direct supervision. So there are five to seven officers to each sergeant, five to seven sergeants under a lieutenant and so on.

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