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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 40,000 police departments exist
under the supervision of state and local governments, the idea that American police departments are paramilitary is
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 organizations.
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 debate.
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
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.
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
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 ranks.
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
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).
|...the idea that American police departments are paramilitary is nonsense.
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.