Most police officers begin as entry-level patrol officers, then gain higher ranks during their career. Not all police officers meet the skills and requirements necessary to move into the top ranks. You must demonstrate leadership skills, talent as an officer and the right educational credentials. Each police department sets its own standards for advancement. Your specific department is the best source for information on how to move through the ranks.
Police officers just starting out in their careers typically begin with a title of police officer, though rankings vary by city. The San Diego and Los Angeles police departments, for example, assign the titles of Police Officer I, II and III; and Police Officer III is the highest-ranking. Requirements to become a police officer typically include a physical fitness test, a high school diploma, a criminal background check and training at the police academy.
In most departments, detectives -- or non-uniformed officers -- are the next step up from officer. Non-uniformed officers typically work as investigators and have more autonomy than lower-ranked officers. To become a detective, you typically must have a few years of experience and proven skill as a police officer. In some departments, you may have to take a test.
Entry-level leadership positions are the next step up from detective. These positions include sergeant and lieutenant, and the power these officers have significantly varies from department to department. Some police departments have dozens of lieutenants, while in others, a lieutenant may oversee an entire division. These leadership positions most often require a test and frequently demand that you meet specific educational requirements, such as completing a college degree.
If you succeed as a lieutenant or sergeant, you may be eligible to move into the highest ranks -- and eventually be a candidate for police chief. At many departments, you may move through the ranks of lieutenant, captain and major before becoming a commander. These roles typically require significant experience, a test, recommendations from other members of the department's leadership, and a strong educational background that may include a bachelor's or master's degree.
Chief of Police
You can become deputy or assistant chief of police by steadily moving up in the ranks, but chief of police is a political appointment. You won't be eligible for this role until you've spent many years in your department's upper leadership. Even then, though, you must gain the respect of the executive charged with appointing the chief of police. Depending on how your local government is structured, you might be appointed by a mayor, city council or county chief executive officer.
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