Police Careers

Policing is an exciting career that offers secure middle-class employment with advancement potential. Though the opportunity for moving up the ladder is strongly correlated to the size of the agency, all but the smallest departments have hierarchical structures and promotional schemes that allow for the advancement of qualified candidates based on a competitive process that includes work history, testing, and interviews. This guide will introduce readers to the typical progression through the ranks of sworn personnel in law enforcement agencies, focusing primarily on municipal police departments and county sheriffs’ offices.1

Police Officer

Following successful completion of the hiring process and survival of the police academy, virtually all new police officers will begin their careers in the patrol division. Patrol officers, often called the “backbone” of the police department, make up almost two out of three sworn officers in some big-city agencies.2 Being a police patrol officer is arguably the most complicated job in the world because officers must deal with human beings in an infinite number of possible situations, often when those inherently complex humans are at their worst. On any given shift, an officer will perform multiple roles—law enforcer, psychologist, referee, social worker, and crime fighter, just to name a few. A complete list of patrol officers’ tasks would be quite long but would definitely include:

  • Random vehicular, bicycle, or foot patrol of an assigned sector or “beat” for the purpose of deterring or displacing crime, making citizens feel safer, and allowing for quick response to calls for service
  • Directed patrol of “hot spots”—areas where a disproportionate amount of crime occurs.
  • Response to 9-1-1 or non-emergency calls for service, which might include an limitless array of criminal and non-criminal matters.
  • Preliminary investigations of crimes to include control of crime scenes, identification of evidence, and initial interviews.
  • Officer-initiated response to and reporting of suspicious behavior.
  • Security surveys of businesses and/or residences as assigned for the purpose of crime prevention.
  • Coordination of Neighborhood Watch meetings or attendance at other community forums.
  • Traffic and crowd control at non-police emergency scenes; assistance of firefighters and/or emergency medical personnel.
  • Enforcement of traffic laws and response to traffic incidents.
  • Writing field activity reports and offense reports.
  • Testifying in court about previous incidents.
  • Providing escorts for funerals and other processions.
  • Other duties as assigned.

police-careersThe above list is neither exhaustive nor prioritized. Everyone knows that the police are the only public servants who are available 24/7/365, and people are not shy about calling the police for anything and everything. Generally speaking, police respond to all calls and either handle the matters in question or refer the parties involved to someone who can help them. The motto “to serve and to protect” that is emblazoned on most police vehicles is all-inclusive and results in an endless list of duties from trivial to life-threatening. This is why police work is so complex and why officers need so much education, training, and on-the-job experience to become really good at their jobs.

It is important to note that officers spend a great deal of time driving around waiting for something to happen, and report writing and other administrative duties also consume a lot of time. Police work is often described as hour upon hour of pure boredom interspersed with a few seconds of sheer terror.3 While this is clearly a hyperbolic statement, it is nevertheless important to understand that the portrayal of policing in movies and television is not realistic, and someone who enters this occupation thinking that it is going to be all “cops and robbers” is in for a rude awakening. Bona fide crime-fighting duties are relatively rare, and officers spend much more time serving than they do protecting.

Deputy Sheriff

Deputies in county sheriffs’ offices are essentially the same as patrol officers in city police departments. Although their geographical jurisdiction is different, they are full-fledged peace officers who must meet the same standards as city officers. Their job descriptions are fundamentally the same, and with rare exceptions, the progression through the ranks is similar. One significant difference is that sheriffs—in addition to their law enforcement duties—are responsible for incarcerating convicted misdemeanants as well as accused offenders who are awaiting trial, so a number of personnel are assigned to jail duty. As a rule, these positions are held by civilians, but commissioned deputies do work as jailers in some agencies. Moreover, where jailers are civilian employees rather than deputies, these positions can provide a foot in the door for individuals who aspire to become deputies. Many deputies start out as non-sworn employees—e.g., jailers or dispatchers.

Time-In-Rank Promotions

The quasi-military nature of police work includes a time-in-rank promotional system that requires officers to spend a prescribed amount of time at each rank before they can move up to the next level. A police officer or deputy sheriff who has the requisite three to five years of experience in patrol and has a clean record with the agency is eligible to take a promotional exam for Sergeant or Detective. These tests vary by department, and study materials are available. It is not unusual for “study buddies” to get together in pairs or groups to prepare for these exams. Even though they are competing against one another for a limited number of promotions, the camaraderie among officers usually outweighs their competitiveness. They want their “brothers and sisters” to succeed and willingly help them to do so. Officers seeking promotion will also interview with superior officers, and based on their test and interview scores and an assessment of their work histories, the agency will compile an eligibility roster and then promote based on each officer’s rank on the list.


A sergeant is a front-line supervisor who leads a group of officers assigned to a particular unit of the agency with patrol, of course, being the most common. The sergeant is a “shirt sleeves” supervisor who is right out there in the middle of things, doing all the same work that his or her officers are required to do. As such, the job description is basically the same except for added supervisory responsibilities. As leaders, sergeants strongly influence their officers’ use of discretion and are accountable for many major decisions that take place in the field. In addition to patrol, some sergeants supervise specialized field units or civilian personnel at headquarters. Regardless of assignment, sergeants take an active role in training, developing, and evaluating their employees.


Detective is equivalent to the rank of Sergeant in most agencies, but instead of supervising patrol officers as a sergeant does, a detective is a full-time criminal investigator. Detectives have long been glamorized by Hollywood, and although this is often very interesting work, a detective will spend a lot of time at his or her desk making telephone calls and conducting Internet and database searches, as well as writing reports and preparing cases for court. A short list of a detective’s duties follows:

  • Working with crime scene investigators to gather and catalog forensic evidence.
  • Interviewing victims and witnesses and interrogating suspects.4
  • Analyzing evidence, building their cases, writing reports, and working with prosecutors to prepare cases for trial.
  • Testifying in court when cases do not end in plea bargains.
  • Keeping victims and witnesses informed of case status.
  • Reviewing cold cases and following up on new leads.

Smaller agencies with lower volumes of crime do not allow for investigative specialization. Their detectives are generalists who investigate all types of crimes that occur in the jurisdiction, but in larger agencies, detectives tend to specialize in a particular category of crime.

Perhaps the most prestigious of these specializations is homicide. Homicide detectives are charged with investigating murders and aggravated assaults when it is likely that the victims will die. Homicide detectives also investigate suicides because these must be treated as homicides until evidence suggests otherwise. These detectives are usually seasoned veterans who have honed their investigative skills through many years of education, training, and experience and have generally proven themselves as investigators of other types of crime before moving up to homicides. Because of the seriousness of these crimes and the lack of exigent circumstances when victims are already dead, homicide detectives have a greater role than other investigators in initial crime scene investigations. Their deliberate attention to detail is crucial to solving our most serious crimes.

Crime Scene Investigator

Over the last several decades, crime scene investigators (or “criminalists”) have evolved as a specialty apart from regular detectives. In some agencies, these are full-fledged police officers who have received special training in criminalistics, but increasingly these are civilians with degrees in biology and/or chemistry as well as highly specialized training in processing crime scenes. Particularly important are the identification and proper handling of trace evidence—i.e., hairs, fibers, fingerprints, blood, and other evidence that are the result of physical contact at crime scenes. Often just a “trace” of this evidence is left behind, but even the smallest piece of evidence, particularly blood or semen that is subject to DNA analysis, can be crucial to solving a case. This specialty has developed in recent years in conjunction with scientific advances that require expertise beyond that of regular police officers and detectives, and colleges and universities have created specialized degree programs to meet this need. People who are interested in this specialty would do well to seek out degree programs in forensic science that combine criminal justice education with courses in the natural sciences.

State Trooper

State police troopers have a broader geographical jurisdiction than city police officers and county sheriffs’ deputies, but their duties are similar. They focus much more on traffic enforcement, but they are still commissioned peace officers who provide comprehensive law enforcement services. In some states, patrol and investigations are broken out into separate divisions. For instance, the Texas Department of Public Safety has a Highway Patrol Division that is responsible for traffic and criminal law enforcement in rural areas and the Texas Rangers Division (the oldest state police agency in the US) that handles criminal investigations.6 There is considerable variation in rank structures and career progression in state police agencies, but they are hierarchical quasi-military organizations with time-in-rank promotional schemes that are very similar to those already discussed.

Federal Police

The federal government also has a number of law enforcement agencies. Interestingly, the US Postal Inspection Service predates the republic; its special agents (originally called surveyors) date back to 1772.7 Presently there are approximately 120,000 law enforcement officers with firearm and arrest authority working in seventy-three federal agencies, with approximately 96,000 of those officers working for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.8 Federal agencies have limited subject matter jurisdiction. They are generally responsible only for federal laws, and each agency handles cases that are unique to its mission. As such, the work of their agents is highly specialized. The Secret Service, for instance, has only two areas of responsibility: financial crimes (predominately counterfeiting) and executive protection (their more well-known role). The Postal Inspection Service investigates mail fraud and crimes against postal employees. In addition to the suit-and-tie investigators that Hollywood often romanticizes, many federal agencies employ uniformed police officers—e.g., the Border Patrol and the Capitol Police. The number of federal agencies and divisions within those agencies are too numerous to mention, and the number of federal police personnel has grown substantially since 9/11 and continues to grow. Still, compared to city, county, and state law enforcement, the number of federal officers is relatively low, and the competition for these positions is high. Therefore, most people interested in law enforcement careers will find employment at the state or local levels.

Higher Ranks

American law enforcement agencies borrow a great deal from the military, including the basic rank structure that exists in most agencies. After the rank of Sergeant and Detective, the next level up is Lieutenant, and then after that is Captain. Up to this level, ranks are fairly consistent, but after Captain, agencies begin to diverge. Some may continue with military ranks such as Major and Colonel, but others do not. It depends on how big the agency is and how tall its organization structure happens to be. In the Houston Police Department, the rank structure above Captain is:

  • Assistant Chief
  • Executive Assistant Chief
  • Chief

Each of the above ranks is an appointed position and, therefore, does not follow the same process that exists up to the rank of Captain—namely, a formal time-in-rank promotional scheme based on testing, interviews, and job history. As noted previously, most police officers must spend three to five years at that level before testing for Sergeant or Detective. Similarly, someone must hold the rank of Sergeant or Detective for one to three years, depending on the agency, before testing for Lieutenant and then must hold that rank for another one to three years before taking the test for Captain. The length of time required at each rank before becoming eligible to test for the next higher rank varies from agency to agency, but whatever it happens to be in any particular police department or sheriff’s office, it is almost always a strict, inviolable requirement. This waiting for promotion can be difficult for some individuals, especially those with advanced education and other strong credentials, but the tradeoff is that promotion is based on a more objective and less political process than exists in the private sector. For the most part, promotions are truly based on merit.


The top rung of the ladder in a municipal police department is the rank of Chief. In general, police chiefs are appointed by the mayor or city manager and approved by the city council, and of course, they can be removed by the same. Since the beginning of professional policing, the debate has raged about whether it is better to hire a chief from outside the agency or to promote from within, and there is no clear answer to that question. It depends on a number of variables. Agencies with a stated preference for promoting from within point to the need to reward proven and loyal employees, but other departments believe it is necessary to bring in “new blood” with a fresh perspective. An outsider is not committed to the status quo and is sometimes better able to identify areas in which the department can improve. Promoting from within is the more common preference, but even these agencies will sometimes go outside if circumstances warrant doing so, especially in the wake of a major scandal or pattern of corruption when reform is the top priority.


At the county level, the chief executive is usually an elected official. In fact, sheriffs are typically selected in partisan elections in which they are identified by—and supported by—their political parties. Why are sheriffs partisan politicians? It is a habit and nothing more. This longstanding tradition is somewhat controversial because in theory, the most important job qualification is popularity. With the exception of convicted felons, virtually anyone can become Sheriff if he or she is able to get enough votes. History is replete with examples of a county’s favorite son or war hero coming home and becoming Sheriff, and some of these have had questionable qualifications and have achieved dubious results. That said, in actual practice, it is difficult for anyone without substantial law enforcement experience to be elected Sheriff. In some cases, sheriffs are experienced—perhaps even retired—municipal police officers or supervisors, and it is not uncommon for a sheriff to have been a ranking deputy from within the same office. In any case, the political component is the primary difference between a city Police Chief and a county Sheriff. Other than that, their jobs are very similar, except that the Sheriff has wider jurisdiction and must run the county jail as well. Some counties around the country have created county police departments to take over the law enforcement duties of sheriffs’ offices, but this is an exception to the rule.


The number of police and detectives is expected to grow seven percent in this decade. That rate of growth is slower than the average for all occupations and translates to fewer than 60,000 additional jobs; however, these numbers do not take into account the potential impact of retirements. Police agencies added many new officers in the eighties and nineties, and these officers are now eligible for retirement. In San Francisco alone, 400 officers are expected to retire in the next three years.10 The same thing is happening in departments all across the country, and this indicates that qualified young men and women who hope to begin law enforcement careers in the near future should be able to find work. Although some governments face intense pressure to cut their budgets and police layoffs are not unheard of, the loss of police jobs is rarely supported by the citizens who expect service and protection from those officers. All things considered, for the remainder of the 2010s and beyond, the job outlook for police officers should remain bright, and it behooves anyone with hopes of entering this line of work to learn as much as he or she can about it. The information here should serve as a valuable resource for these job seekers.

This guide was written by William Prince, Adjunct Instructor of Criminal Justice at Wharton County Junior College.

Police Career Resources

Arrested Development – A book by the former police chief of the Madison Police Department (Wisconsin), David C. Couper, discussing police subculture and how to overcome common obstacles to improve policing.

The New Quality Leadership Workbook For Police – A workbook used during the 20-year transformation process of the Madison (Wisconsin) police. It includes exercises and assignments to enable a person to review his or her leadership style and the way in which they bring change into an organization and make it stick.

[1] Sworn personnel are authorized to make arrests, to carry firearms, and to use reasonable force when necessary. Non-sworn personnel are civilians who lack police authority.
[2] Gaines, L. K., & Miller, R. L. (2013). CJ2. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. p. 102.
[3] Many variations of this popular saying exist, and its precise origin is unknown.
[4] Although “interview” and “interrogate” are often used interchangeably, their definitions in the context of the criminal law are distinct. In general, police interview victims and witnesses, and they interrogate suspects who are the focus of criminal investigations. This distinction has important legal ramifications.
[5] Houston Police Department: http://www.hpdcareer.com/opportunities.html
[6] Texas Department of Public Safety: http://www.dps.texas.gov/
[7] US Postal Inspection Service: https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/aboutus/History.aspx
[8] Bureau of Justice Statistics: https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4372
[9] Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Protective-Service/Police-and-detectives.htm
[10] San Francisco Public Press: http://sfpublicpress.org/news/2012-06/sf-mayor-says-police-need-30-million-more-after-years-of-stalled-hiring