Law Enforcement Promotion: Making the Police Career Ladder Work for You

7 min read
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Whether you’re just starting your law enforcement career or have spent years on the force, you’ve probably learned that the police promotion process is not always a clear-cut path. Because the basic career ladder structure is somewhat universal, you’re probably wondering if there are steps you can take to best position yourself for advancement, or if it really comes down to years on the force and being in the right place at the right time.

Read on for a comprehensive review of the police promotion process, with helpful insights to help you advance in law enforcement. Learn more about a typical department structure, real-life promotion experiences and, most important, steps you can take to earn promotions and move up the ranks.

Career Advice from an LAPD Detective 

Lou Turriaga is a longtime law enforcement veteran who has worked his way up through the ranks and now serves as a Detective III in the Los Angeles Police Department. He is also a former director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a nearly century-old organization whose mission is “protecting those who protect others.”

Detective Turriaga draws on his considerable experience to offer some advice for being proactive when it comes to positioning yourself for a meaningful career in law enforcement.

First, it is important to mention that, while most police departments have similar structures, the way officers ascend the organizational hierarchy is entirely dependent on the police officer and their agency promotional practices. There are, however, steps you can take to help your cause.

“The more experience you bring, the more apt you are to be promoted, but things like a military background, a college degree and working many assignments helps,” said Detective Turriaga. “Truly work every assignment you can in every line of work. They are looking for a well-rounded candidate.”

He also emphasized is that the trend over time has moved from minimal educational requirements for police work toward requiring bachelor’s degrees in many departments and giving extra weight to master’s degrees when promoting officers to command staff.

“There has been a gradual move toward having an educated police force,” said Detective Turriaga. “It’s not just important to the people we serve, it’s important to our members to have an educated department.”

In fact, one study examining the increasingly important role of education in modern policing found that 35% of police chiefs and law enforcement chief executives have earned an advanced degree.

[RELATED] Police Education Study: 35.1% of Chiefs Have Master’s Degree >>

If you are motivated to enhance your ability to serve by advancing up the chain of command, it is important to understand the requirements and responsibilities of each step in the police career ladder.

Rank Structure and Police Promotional Process

As mentioned above, each department or agency is different, with department size having a lot to do with rank structure and promotional practices. A larger agency will likely have more levels, more opportunities for promotion and more structure in terms of how promotions are granted. A smaller agency or department is likely to be structured differently, and may put more weight on seniority than on other factors when granting promotions.

Understanding that there are many variations on this theme, here is a generally applicable police rank structure:

1. Police Officer: After successful completion of the police academy, this is the traditional patrol officer position where one begins a career in the field. At this level, officers are generally assigned to a geographic area in their jurisdiction and perform typical law enforcement tasks including:

  • Traffic stops
  • Responding to accidents/crime reports
  • Writing reports
  • Taking statements from suspects and witnesses

There can be multiple levels within the Police Officer ranks, often categorized as Police Officer I, Police Officer II, Police Officer III and so on. While not every police officer must follow this ranking structure, this upward movement coincides with advances, enhances responsibilities and potentially even further training.

Early-career police officer duties may include basic law enforcement functions such as issuing citations, making arrests and generally enforcing laws. After building some experience, police officers can then move into specialties such as narcotics, gang activity, task forces, K9 duty and more.

Some officers choose to spend their entire careers at some level of the police officer position. If you are currently serving in the role of police officer and have a desire to advance, there are steps you can take to improve your chances.

Detective Turriaga suggests seeking out further training at the local and state levels, as well as signing up for specialized assignments. Outside of the job, enhancing your education with a bachelor’s degree, and even a master’s degree, will demonstrate your commitment to furthering your knowledge surrounding law enforcement, as well as developing core leadership skills such as communication, working with people, navigating conflict and more.

Beyond Police Officer I, II and III, candidates for higher ranks are often required to undergo some sort of testing process to demonstrate their readiness to advance. For example, at the LAPD, there are sergeant and detective exams offered every two years, and officers can be promoted along separate sergeant or detective tracks.

2. Sergeant: The rank of police sergeant is typically achieved following an examination, and an average of 5 years minimum of service on the force. In this position you would now oversee training and management of other officers, but responsibilities will differ depending on which level of sergeant you are. Sergeants also perform administrative duties, similar to a department manager, but can also perform specialized duties such as:

  • Surveillance
  • Follow-up investigations
  • Run command at major field assignments (i.e. mass shootings, police shootings, etc.)
  • Coach and mentor subordinates

Just as with the position of police officer, there can be levels within the sergeant rank. Of course, this will always depend on the specific department. In the New York Police Department and Chicago Police Department, there is only one level of the sergeant rank. In the Los Angeles Police Department, though, there are two distinct levels.

3. Lieutenant: This is a rank achieved following an examination and interview, and a minimum of seven years of service in your career. In the LAPD, for example, you must serve for a minimum of two years as a sergeant or detective before you’re eligible for lieutenant. Many agencies also require or strongly prefer a bachelor’s degree and formal supervisory and management training.

A lieutenant is responsible for:

  • Assisting the commanding officer with the management, oversight, assignments and direction of an entire department.
  • Overseeing specialized, standard police or detective units.
  • Taking charge of active crime scenes in the field.

There are sometimes additional levels of the lieutenant rank in larger departments, municipalities and cities, but that is less common in smaller police departments.

4. Captain: Length of service to earn eligibility for promotion to captain varies greatly, with a minimum of nine years of experience required, depending on the department and other factors; for example, the LAPD also requires that you serve at least one year at the rank of lieutenant. Other traits leadership looks for include proven interpersonal, communication and organizational skills; managerial experience including training, coaching, mentoring and team building as well as experience in budgeting, negotiation and data analysis; and demonstrating overall leadership abilities.

The position of captain is responsible for:

  • The work of patrol officers and detectives
  • Overseeing facilities, training, safety and tactics
  • Working closely with community leaders as a liaison between the police department and greater community

The police captain is also typically responsible for a role that is vitally important in today’s law enforcement. By fostering a positive relationship between the public and police force, the captain improves the department’s ability to keep law and order and create a trusting relationship with the community.

To be eligible for the rank of captain and above, an advanced degree is often required and is widely regarded as providing a competitive edge when applying for promotions.

5. Commander: The commander position does not exist in all law enforcement offices and is dependent on department structure. The commander is a high-level senior leadership position, usually responsible for overseeing multiple stations or bureaus. Commanders direct patrol officers in their jurisdiction, direct detectives in investigative efforts and ensure that the entire department is following rules and regulations across operations.

6. Deputy Chief/Assistant Chief: This is the second in command behind the chief of police and report directly to the chief. Deputy and assistant chiefs oversee multiple bureaus and departments. Getting promoted to deputy chief/assistant chief is usually at the behest of the chief of police or police commissioner. In most cases, this leadership position also requires an advanced degree. Many law enforcement professionals at this rank and above have a leadership-specific master’s degree such as an M.A. in Leadership Studies or an M.S. in Law Enforcement & Public Safety Leadership.

7. Chief of Police: The chief of police is the highest-ranking officer in the department, responsible for the management, administration and operation of the entire department. The chief will oversee the individual bureaus within the department, ranging from counterterrorism to patrol services and everything in between. Advanced education has become more important than ever, as the role of chief continues to evolve in response to new challenges that law enforcement faces today.

To most effectively serve their communities, today’s law enforcement leaders benefit from possessing:

  • A solid grasp of how new technologies are impacting law enforcement, including body-worn cameras, drones, cybercrime, etc.
  • Communication skills needed to handle sensitive issues (for example, those that draw public and media scrutiny of the department)
  • A thorough understanding of how social media can affect (both positively and negatively) public perception of law enforcement

Preparing Yourself for Promotion in Your Agency: How Education Helps

The fact that more and more departments are moving toward requiring bachelor’s and master’s degrees for command staff has provided considerable incentive for law enforcement leaders to seek out strong educational programs that enable them to complete their degree without missing a beat.

Beyond meeting department promotional requirements and enhancing overall job skills, obtaining a master’s degree is shown to:

  • Expand your overall knowledge and expertise and sharpen your leadership acumen
  • Give you a clear competitive edge against applicants who lack your educational credentials
  • Help you qualify for a potential salary increase

Police unions around the country such as the Los Angeles Police Protective League have recognized this and have added contract stipulations that assist members in acquiring advanced degrees through funding from their city or town. Some law enforcement agencies even incentivize officers obtaining an advanced degree by offering a small stipend to those who complete their education or join the force with a degree or certain credit hours.

If you’re thinking about going back to school, you should contact your union/association or human resources department to learn more about what educational benefits, including tuition assistance and/or pay increase, may be available to you.

When searching for the ideal degree program, some key factors to look for include:

  • Faculty instructors who are experienced police, criminal justice and military leaders (not just academic faculty, who may or may not understand the nuances of your everyday challenges)
  • Curriculum that is developed in collaboration with law enforcement agencies so that it is up to date and immediately relevant
  • Online options that offer the flexibility to do the work on your own time, enabling you to balance your schedule around the demands of your law enforcement duties and family life

Programs like the 100% online master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership offered by University of San Diego are designed to help prepare law enforcement professionals for advancement by emphasizing practical, contemporary skills such as organizational leadership, community relations, fiscal management, police technology, conflict resolution and much more.

Free eBook: How earning your master’s degree can help you achieve your career goals.

Moving Up the Ranks: How a Master’s Degree Can Help You Take Your Career to the Next Level