American police departments are not paramilitary
organizations.  Simply because of the military rank
structure, or specialized units within police
departments such as SWAT teams that use refined
military tactics in resolving high risk life threatening
situations, some people, even supposedly intelligent
ones, like to throw around the paramilitary label for
self serving purposes.  When you become a police
officer, you'll run into to those who think the
military appearance of uniforms and rank insignias
present an image which is too harsh and
authoritarian.  Some of these people even find their
way into leadership positions in police departments
where they waste everybody's time with their social
experiments.  In the end, the uniforms and
insignias survive because that's what works best.

Paramilitary -
a - 1. designating, of, or having to do
with forces working alongside of or in place of a
regular military organization, usually as a
semi-official, often secret, auxiliary.
2.  Designating or of a private, often secret,
quasi-military organization.  (Webster's Dictionary)

In countries that have a single national police force
that may well be controlled by that country's
military, paramilitary organizations can survive
within the police structure.  In the United States,
where over 18,000 police departments exist under
the supervision of state and local governments, the
idea that American police departments are
paramilitary is nonsense.

Sworn and Civilian Personnel

Every police organization is comprised of sworn and
civilian personnel.  All those individuals who are
sworn have police powers while the civilians do not.  
In the higher management levels of police
departments there are positions which may be held
by either a sworn individual or a civilian.  For
instance, the management of your department's
Public Information Office might well be led by a
civilian who has background experience with news

Let's say your department has several high level
positions held by civilians.  Their positions will be
designated by a rank such as Director.  The director
rank will probably be associated with a sworn rank
for pay grade purposes only.  In this example we'll
associate the sworn rank of major with director.  
The civilian director will have the same command
authority as a major over those people, sworn and
civilian, who work under the limited scope of the
director.  However, outside the civilian director's
area of expertise, that same command authority
does not extend.

Let's say you're on the street handling a robbery
incident.  The Director of Public Information, who is
a civilian,  is on the scene.  The Director orders you
to participate in an interview with a television news
crew.  This probably wouldn't happen, but if it did,
what would you do?  Remember, you don't work in
the public information office.  If you say you'd
refuse the Director's order, you'd be insubordinate.  
The Director's order is not unlawful, and the order
is certainly within the scope of the Director's
expertise and authority.

This time, the Director orders you to pick up shell
casings, from shots fired during the robbery, from
the street so they won't get lost.  You've already
marked the locations of the casings, and you're
waiting for the crime lab to photograph the scene
and collect the casings.  Do you follow the
Director's order?  This should be a no brainer.  The
Director is clearly giving orders outside his or her
area of expertise, 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

When the Director is a sworn member, that Director
has the tactical command responsibility of any scene
where there is not another sworn member of equal
or higher rank.  In the example I just described, if
the Director is a Major, he or she won't direct you
to pick up the casings.  However, you'd be required
to follow any and all lawful orders given you by a
sworn Director.

Entry Level Rank

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

Supervisory Ranks

Corporal: Not all police departments will have the
rank of corporal.  Where the rank does exist, the
corporal will have supervisory responsibilities.  
When your sergeant is on leave or otherwise not
available, the corporal will assume the sergeant's
supervisory duties.

Officer-In-Charge:   When your squad supervisor
(sergeant) is on leave or otherwise unavailable, and
there is no other supervisor of permanent rank
available, a police officer will be designated to
supervise the squad. While titles may vary among
police departments, I'll use the term OIC for
officer-in-charge.  Your sergeant may rotate the
OIC position, or a regular OIC may be designated.  
When the OIC is in charge, that police officer is
effectively an acting sergeant with all the authority
and responsibilities associated with a permanent
rank sergeant.

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

Lieutenant:  The lieutenant is usually 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 smaller specialized units.  The
lieutenant is always responsible for the
administrative functions for the shifts and units
they command.  

Captain: The captain is usually the first command
rank within a police department.  The captain may
command a district or precinct.

Major; Lieutenant Coronel; Coronel: These are all
command ranks within a police department.  How
they are utilized depends upon the size of a police
department, budgetary considerations, and the
wishes of the police chief.  For example, 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 in charge of
three districts/precincts while a coronel may be in
charge of all the departments districts/precincts.

It all depends on the size of the police department.  
The larger a police department is will determine how
closely the ranks fit the traditional military model.  
You might come across a police department with a
total of 25 sworn members.  In this department
there's a police chief; three majors; five captains;
six lieutenants; seven sergeants and three police
officers.  Obviously...the assignment of duties
within this department does not follow any military
model.  While one could say the command structure
of this department is top heavy, it's not a big deal
since the real rank structure is known to everyone
because of the limited number of people.  In this
department, the rank structure is probably based
more on seniority and pay grades rather than
responsibilities traditionally associated with the
...the idea that American police
departments are paramilitary is
A top heavy command structure only becomes a
problem in larger police departments.  If a police
department maintains the duties and responsibilities
of a traditional model, it should be obvious why too
many bosses can really complicate things and cause
a lot of people a lot of extra work.  When too many
positions of authority exist, the people in those
positions are constantly looking for ways to justify
their existence. That justification usually comes in
the form of officers, sergeants, and lieutenants
tasked with implementing and tracking superfluous
and sometimes useless policies and projects.

What I've described is only a general guide to give
you some understanding of how police rank
structures work.  There is no single, one size fits all
definition.  When you apply to a police department,
you should make yourself intimately familiar with
that department's rank structure.  You'll be much
better prepared for any interview when you're
familiar with the ranks and responsibilities
associated with the ranks.  You'll also become
familiar with unique terminology to that department
which will aid you in smoothly communicating with
your interviewer(s).
"While you may have the lowest rank in the
department, you'll be vested with full authority
under the law." ~ Barry M. Baker
For those of you who've served in the military,
you're throughly familiar with rank structure, and
the general responsibilities and duties associated
with various ranks.  Police departments have always
followed the military rank structure for one very
simple reason...it's the most efficient structure for
an organization where discipline and the clear
delineation of responsibilities is essential.
Police Rank
Copyright © 2019  Barry M. Baker