There are thousands of uniformed public law enforcement organisations in the United States. Such an organisation is typically called a Police Department, Sheriff's Department, or Sheriff's Office, but may be called something else. For simplicity all shall be referred to in this article as 'police/sheriff's departments', and their ranks and insignia as 'police' ranks and insignia. Naturally I've not examined the ranks and rank insignia of all of them. However, I have examined those of a large number – big, small, metropolitan, and rural – from across the country; a more than adequate cross-section to establish what can be considered as being within the boundaries of normal, traditional and sensible practice regarding this matter.
Police/sheriff's departments of the United States typically use variants of the same system of ranks and rank insignia, which is based on that established by the United States armed forces. The purpose of ranks and rank insignia is to identify people's positions within a hierarchy clearly. However, a number of flaws have arisen and there is an unwarranted degree of complication and inconsistency, all detrimental to this purpose.
The object of this article is to establish, without being inconsistent with the general traditions of police ranks and rank insignia of the United States, the best possible standard model for the ranks and rank insignia, taking into account the need to accommodate variations due to the different circumstances of individual departments.
Variants of the same system are used by other types of uniformed public services and the same sorts of problems have arisen in many of these organisations. Therefore much of this article is relevant to non-military uniformed public services generally.
Having an excessive number of ranks results in a top-heavy rank structure, unnecessary bureaucracy, inefficient supervision, people holding ranks that are higher than their roles warrant, and an overly-complicated and restrictive promotion system. The number of ranks an organisation requires depends largely on the number of levels of supervision, and the number of levels of supervision depends largely on the size of the organisation.
With any rank structure the distribution of personnel by rank must be more-or-less triangular – the higher the rank, the fewer people there are who hold the rank – or the organisational system will not function properly and resources will be wasted.
Some organisations – even if they have the right number of ranks – have ranks in the wrong positions, typically lower than they ought to be (which is not always clearly evident). It is reasonable to believe that a rank has the same status that it had in the past and that a rank in one organisation is at least comparable to the same rank in a similar organisation. Designating people with ranks that are superior to their actual positions is misleading; it makes those ranks less meaningful than they ought to be, which is detrimental to morale; and the impression of self-aggrandisement it presents damages the dignity and credibility of the organisation. Even if this practice didn't have negative consequences, there still wouldn't be anything to gain from it.
Under-ranking (i.e. holding a rank that is less than commensurate with the level of authority and responsibility) is much less of an issue than over-ranking. In fact under-ranking can be regarded as commendable, being indicative of higher standards and rejection of aggrandisement. Nevertheless, under-ranking can be misleading and under-ranking by more than one level should be avoided.
Promotion should not be regarded as a right. To reward people for long service, meritorious conduct or possessing valuable skills is not the reason for having a rank structure. Commendations, medals, pay increases (without promotion) and other things can be used for this purpose. For most ranks, whether a promotion takes place should be a result of the organisation's need for an additional person of a particular rank. In these cases the selection of a person for promotion should be based primarily on merit. There are instances where promotion may be virtually automatic on fulfilling certain criteria, and these cases are where people are promoted between ranks that are in terms of function several grades of the same rank. A promotion should not occur if it's likely to contribute to undermining the soundness of the organisational system.
Because the rank structure and insignia are derived from military ranks and insignia, military ranks are therefore the appropriate model for comparison and shall be used as such in this article. It is desirable that police ranks be at least approximately equivalent to their military counterparts – or, taking into account the fact that flaws exist in military rank structures, what their military counterparts should be. Having the same name as its military counterpart is a compulsion to ensure that a rank can be legitimately regarded as equivalent.
A complication is that, whereas in military services unneeded ranks are almost always omitted simply in order of seniority, in police/sheriff's departments ranks are omitted non-consecutively in many more cases, and different departments omit ranks at different levels. To have more than one rank for each level of command may not be necessary. Ranks can be omitted non-consecutively without diminishing the level of authority or responsibility – or any other attribute – of remaining ranks (so such alteration should not occur).
Unlike military services, police/sheriff's departments do not have separate career streams for commissioned and non-commissioned ranks. This means that if the rank of Sergeant is as high as it should be, higher non-commissioned ranks (and warrant officer ranks) are unnecessary.
Omitting rank(s) below Sergeant is common. At least one rank below Sergeant must exist, and the existence of at least two of them is expedient in order to avoid top-heaviness.
There are two main approaches where non-commissioned ranks are concerned:
• A department has Sergeant, Corporal, sometimes Lance Corporal as well, and one or more grades of 'Officer' or an analogous rank (e.g. Patrolman, Trooper, etc.)Both are acceptable (depending on the traditions of individual departments).
• A department has Sergeant with one or more grades of Officer or an analogous rank.
The purpose of sergeants, corporals and lance corporals is to provide leadership, so there has to be a sufficient number of people for them to lead.
The titles 'Senior Officer' and 'Senior Police Officer' are less than ideal owing to the fact that these terms are applicable in a generic sense to any number of people holding any number of senior ranks. Senior Patrolman on the other hand is perfectly reasonable. The titles Leading Officer, Leading Patrolman, etc. work well. The common practice of distinguishing ranks numerically is reliable also.
The best arrangements, and therefore the acceptable arrangements for the purposes of this article, are:
• Sergeant, Corporal, Lance Corporal (if the number of people at this level is appropriately small), Officer/Patrolman/Trooper/etc.Note: the second-lowest rank can be omitted.
• Sergeant, Corporal, Officer/Patrolman/Trooper/etc. First Class, Officer/Patrolman/Trooper/etc.
• Sergeant, Senior or Leading Officer/Patrolman/etc., Officer/Patrolman/etc. First Class, Officer/Patrolman/etc. (Trooper, being a military term, is excluded on the grounds that it therefore should be used in conjunction with Corporal.)
Trainee titles (e.g. Cadet, Recruit) are beyond the scope of this article.
There are six army ranks from Second Lieutenant to Colonel, but these ranks encompass only four levels in a typical military chain of command (platoon or equivalent, company or equivalent, battalion or equivalent, and brigade). A similar discrepancy exists in police/sheriff's departments. This means that it is feasible to omit several of the corresponding police ranks non-consecutively without diminishing the level of authority or responsibility of the remaining ranks.
Small departments require fewer levels of command than others so they may omit more ranks.
The military ranks of Second Lieutenant to Captain comprise the company officer rank class, and Major to Colonel comprise the field officer rank class. Police/sheriff's departments usually have Captain and Lieutenant (some may have both First and Second Lieutenant). Colonel ranks and Major are less common in police/sheriff's departments, usually because of the small size of departments or an excessive number of commissioner/chief/sheriff ranks.
Some departments use non-military ranks instead of colonel ranks and Major. There is some advantage in having non-military ranks. There's less of an onus to ensure that ranks are close to equivalent to their military counterparts. The awkwardness of having Lieutenant-Colonel without Colonel can be avoided. Non-military ranks give departments a less militaristic image and a more distinctive institutional identity. Police/sheriff's departments are not military organisations.
A department should have either military field officer ranks or non-military ranks, not a combination of both types. Apart from being untidy, the inconsistency would encourage misidentification of ranks.
Unfortunately the alternatives to colonel ranks and Major used currently are inconsistent and less than ideal. For example, New York City's police department has inspector ranks at field officer levels despite these ranks being synonymous with company officer levels in nearly every other English-speaking country.
The best arrangement is Chief Superintendent (instead of Colonel), Superintendent (instead of Lieutenant-Colonel) and Deputy Superintendent (instead of Major). Superintendent ranks are the conventional police ranks at these levels in most of the English-speaking world and the position of each of these ranks is very clear. There is no potential for valid criticism to the effect that this arrangement (if employed properly) would result in officers having ranks that are either too high or too low.
(For more detail concerning superintendent ranks refer to this article's Commonwealth counterpart.)
The head of an army holds a rank that is commensurate with the size of the service. For example, if it's approximately division-size, its head will be a major-general; if it's approximately corps-size, its head will be a lieutenant-general; if it's approximately field army-size, its head will be a 'full' general. In effect unneeded general ranks are omitted in order of seniority. In contrast the head of a police/sheriff's department normally holds the rank of Commissioner, Chief or Sheriff whatever its size, and unneeded commissioner/chief/sheriff ranks are omitted in reverse order of seniority.
Some departments use some other title for this position, such as Director (which is generally associated with non-uniformed public services). There is no adequate reason for something other than Commissioner, Chief or Sheriff to be an option for this position.
At present there is an unnecessary and confusing degree of variation in the titles of commissioner/chief/sheriff ranks. There are some eccentric arrangements. For example, whereas some departments have Deputy Chief above Assistant Chief, others (oddly) have them the other way around. By far the best arrangements, and therefore the acceptable arrangements for the purposes of this article, are:
• Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, Assistant Commissioner, Deputy Assistant Commissioner.Note:
• Chief, Deputy Chief, Assistant Chief, Deputy Assistant Chief.
• Sheriff, Undersheriff, Assistant Sheriff, Deputy Assistant Sheriff.
• These arrangements match the best version of the arrangement used in most English-speaking countries.
• Unneeded ranks are omitted in reverse order of seniority.
• Undersheriff is normally the title held by the second-highest ranking member of a sheriff's department. 'Deputy Sheriff' is not used for this position. (Traditionally all members of a sheriff's department ranking below the sheriff are 'deputies'.)
• A 'Deputy Assistant' rank is unlikely to be needed in any US police/sheriff's department (with the possible exception New York City's police department).
It's common for small departments to have one or more commissioner/chief/sheriff ranks at or below Colonel level, which is not ideal. It is possible to avoid such an arrangement by having a clear difference between the appointment and rank of the head of a department (e.g. a person holding the appointment of Chief of Police might hold the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel). However, this defies a strong trend and the existence of a commissioner/chief/sheriff rank at or below Colonel level – though not ideal – is a tolerable practice, being within the limits of what is customary (after all, we're not talking about general ranks). This exception need – and therefore should – apply only to the head of a department.
Two things must be considered to determine the appropriate levels for the highest ranks of a police/sheriff's department:
• The overall size of the department, to ensure that the head of the department doesn't rank too low.If only the size of the largest organisation in the department were considered and it was just assumed that the head of the department must rank one level higher than the head of this organisation, it's possible that the head of the department would rank lower than he/she is entitled to. For example, the military rank commensurate with command of half a dozen Colonel level organisations is Major-General, not the rank between Colonel and Major-General.
• The size of the largest command within the department (being a command that isn't excessively large owing to a poorly-conceived organisational structure), to ensure that the head of the department outranks the head of this organisation.
A police/sheriff's department might not be much bigger than the largest organisation within it (typically the territorial policing command), so it's possible that its head may be entitled to the same rank level as the head of the department. To avoid the head of a department having the same rank as the head of the largest organisation in it, either the former should be upgraded by one level or the latter should be downgraded by one level, depending on the circumstances.
For example, if the head of a department and the head of the largest organisation in it were equivalent to Lieutenant-General, but only marginally in the latter's case, and the next most senior commanders were equivalent to Brigadier-General (with only the deputy head of the largest organisation at Major-General level), it would be best to downgrade the head and deputy head of the largest organisation and leave the head of the department at Lieutenant-General level.
Conversely, if there were no such gap, upgrading the head of the department would be preferable, as it is better to over-rank only one person who isn't outranked by any other member anyway than to under-rank several people. This would probably be the correct option in most cases.
The second-highest rank is used in either of two ways. It may be limited to the actual deputy of the head of a department (below, left), or it may be used for one or more other positions, including command positions (below, right).
Limiting the rank to the deputy head of a department often results in one or both of the highest ranks being unnecessarily represented as higher than they actually are. This arrangement should be abolished in such cases.
If the second-highest rank is limited to the deputy head of the department and it's at or below Colonel level, it shouldn't be a commissioner/chief/sheriff rank. For example:
It's perfectly feasible for a department to have an official deputy head without that person being the only one to hold his/her rank. It's likely that the head of the largest organisation in a department should hold that rank as well.
Some departments currently have an odd or unnecessarily complicated arrangement where ranks of members of plain-clothed investigative organisations are concerned. The best ways of dealing with this matter are:
• 'Detective' supplants 'Officer', 'Patrolman' and analogous words in such ranks (e.g. Senior Detective is equivalent to Senior Patrolman).'Detective' could be, but need not be, added to commissioner/chief/sheriff ranks. Even if they're experienced in detective work and in charge of detectives, people who hold these ranks are almost always above the levels where actual detective work is carried out.
• For other members 'detective' is used as a prefix to the same ranks held by uniformed personnel (e.g. Detective Lance Corporal, Detective Corporal, Detective Sergeant, and so on).
Problems with poorly devised rank structures are exacerbated by ranks having the wrong insignia.
Even though US military rank insignia work very well for police ranks, some departments use different symbols for some ranks. Because such a practice is so unusual and hinders the ability to recognise the seniority of a rank, it should be avoided. This is especially so where the ranks are those of the military.
That military rank insignia are used means that there is a compulsion to ensure that police ranks are not less than approximately equivalent to the military ranks represented by the same insignia (except where a commissioner/chief/sheriff ranks at or below Colonel level).
That military rank insignia are used also means that the correct specifications for police rank insignia (including things like cap peak ornamentation) coincide with the correct specifications for military rank insignia.
Omitting ranks non-consecutively must not result in altering insignia of remaining ranks. Omissions may look untidy on a rank insignia chart, but that has no practical significance.
An invariable correlation between commissioner/chief/sheriff rank titles and the insignia that represent specific ranks is undesirable as it would result in many officers being represented as holding ranks that are considerably higher than the ones they actually hold. The insignia of the lowest possible commissioner/chief/sheriff rank (whatever its specific title happens to be) should be the insignia of the lowest possible general rank; the insignia of the second-lowest possible commissioner/chief/sheriff rank (whatever its specific title happens to be) should be the insignia of the second-lowest possible general rank; and so on.
There has been strident criticism (and rightly so) of various departments for having their members wear insignia of ranks that are considerably higher than the ones they hold, excessive numbers of stars in particular. The largest police department in the United States is that of New York City (around 35 000 members), whose head wears four stars (though three might be more appropriate). Yet many police officers wear the same number in spite of being members of much smaller departments. Some even wear five stars, more than the most senior officers of America's gargantuan military. (The last American military officer who held a five-star rank was promoted to the rank in 1950.)
Deputy Asst Chief;
Deputy Asst Sheriff
Click here for illustrations of examples of possible US police rank insignia arrangements.
Commissioned Army, Air Force and Marine Corps ranks are divided between several classes and different rank classes have different items of uniform or insignia. This custom is emulated by police/sheriff's departments and other non-military uniformed public services. The correct arrangement for each rank is derived from that of its military counterpart. A prominent example is ornamentation on caps: