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

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

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 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 sworn

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

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

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

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.
...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
"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's the most efficient structure for
an organization where discipline and the
clear delineation of responsibilities is
Copyright © 2015  Barry M. Baker
Police Rank