How Police Officers Get Promoted: the Complete Guide 

   Moving up the chain of command in a police force is similar to climbing the corporate ladder of a traditional job. In both cases, hard work and a willingness to learn will take you to the top. For police officers, however, rising to Chief of Police will likely be a long and arduous journey. 

How Police Officers Get Promoted: the Complete Guide  

While every department has specific requirements that must be met, how the majority of police officers get promoted comes down to three very important factors:  

  1. How long you have held your current rank 
  2. Level of physical fitness 
  3. Results on the exams-written and oral 
How Police Officers Get Promoted: the Complete Guide 

The choice to become a police officer requires a kind of dedication very few other careers command. There will be personal sacrifices for the sake of the job but the reward of serving a community’s need for safety is indescribable. The role of a police officer is vital to the security of the neighborhood. 

Promotion Protocol 

The frequency of promotions and the opportunities available to a police officer will depend on the size of the police force. In turn, the size of the police force is determined by the number of residents in the community being served. Larger cities require more uniformed officers which will mean more opportunity to climb up the ranks. 

Small police forces will have limits on the number of opportunities available because they have fewer departments in which to work and advance. Most small-town police forces have the basic departments needed for public safety. These often include administration, traffic cops, K-9 units, crash investigators, fraud investigation, and homicide. 

Large municipalities are likely to have more specialized units that are contingent upon their location. Specialized departments in a big city police force can include underwater search and rescue, aviation investigators, explosives experts (aka bomb squads), computer crime units, and the infamous SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams. 

Since all of these departments, from administration to SWAT, have different roles and functions, the specific requirements for getting promoted will vary. What does remain the same are the three fundamental elements that lead to advancement in the ranks of the department. 

Element #1 Time in Grade 

The most important of the three factors needed for a promotion in a police department is time in grade. How long a police officer has served the department at their current rank is known as the time in grade. The length of time in grade required in order to be considered for a promotion varies depending on the rank. 

For instance, the first promotion obtained when going from probationary officer status to full police officer takes a minimum of six months. Likewise, jumping from lieutenant to captain will take at least a year or more. And that’s if the position becomes available. Time in grade may extend beyond the minimum requirements due to no promotional openings available. 

When it comes to getting promoted in a police department there has to be a spot to fill. That can mean waiting for someone to transfer to another department or police force. It may require waiting on a higher ranking officer to retire or any other means by which a position can open up such as an officer being killed in the line of duty. 

How Police Officers Get Promoted: the Complete Guide 

Element #2 Performance and Physical Fitness 

The next factors that play a role in getting promoted to a higher rank on the police force are job performance and physical fitness. Oftentimes there are several candidates for a position in need of being filled. When those candidates have equal time in grade under their belt, how well they have performed their job during that time becomes an important component to getting selected for promotion. 

Superiors are looking for individuals who exhibit exceptional leadership skills and have a proven success rate. Officers more likely to get promoted are those that meet or exceed work expectations and display above-average performance of their duties. Promotions go to those people who work the hardest at being the best. 

Physical fitness and overall health also play a big part in who is chosen for promotions. Things such as weight and fitness test scores can influence decisions. Other elements include the number of sick days taken, incidents of medical leave, and abundance of work-related injuries. In other words, police officers are less likely to be selected for a promotion if they are absent from work due to frequent illness or injury. 

Element #3 Pass Examinations 

Law enforcement is a challenging line of work and every rank has an important role to fulfill. To ensure an officer is a right fit for the position, he or she must pass an exam or set of exams. These may be written tests or they may be given as an oral exam in front of a board of officers.

These examinations are to determine if an officer has the knowledge required to perform the duties of the promoted position. In some cases, additional schooling may be required to obtain the know-how with regards to the desired position. This is especially true when advancing up the ranks of a specialized unit like computer crime or SWAT. 


Hierarchy of Police Departments 

The most familiar ranks people think of when talking about police departments are the top dog, the Chief of Police, and the patrol officers out on the streets. Small towns may have a few more guys on the force with fancy titles like detective or sergeant. Major cities, however, will have the full spectrum of positions found in the hierarchy of police departments. 

Police Technician 

How Police Officers Get Promoted: the Complete Guide 

Entry-level police officers are known as police technicians. These are the police officers who are directing traffic at accidents and crime scenes. They enforce parking laws and issue tickets to offenders. Other tasks may include organizing and updating case files. 

Police technicians are called upon to provide general assistance to the people of the community in which they serve.  Oftentimes, these officers are tasked with preparing paperwork for incident reports and assisting ranking officers with follow-up investigations.  

Patrol Officers and Detectives 

Depending on the agency of employment, the roles of patrol officers and detectives may vary. In general, the obligations of this position begin with responding to emergency and non-emergency calls. These are the police officers assigned to patrol specific neighborhoods. Additional responsibilities consist of obtaining warrants for searches and arrests, apprehending and interrogating suspects, as well as testifying in court. 

Education requirements for patrol officers and detectives include the completion of an approved training academy. Beyond the training academy, the amount of education needed to become a police officer or detective ranges from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree. How much school is needed depends on the agency, the specific position, and local regulations. 

Police Corporal 

In the chain of command at a police station, a police corporal is a first-level supervisor in the hierarchy. Police corporals are expected to oversee the performance of the personnel under their command. Responsibilities include organizing, training, and directing the actions of their team. Some activities consist of responding to emergencies, traffic enforcement, and investigation of crimes. 

Police officers who possess a substantial amount of initiative, good judgment, and discretion are ideal candidates for the supervisory position of police corporal. 

Police Sergeant 

When compared to corporate positions, a police sergeant holds a middle-management role in the police force. They take instruction from their superiors and help cultivate new policies within the force and out in the community. In addition to supervising and training officers below them, sergeants play an integral part in the disciplinary actions of the officers under their command. 

Responsibilities of a sergeant are often more than just watching over their personnel. They are often involved in the investigation of complaints in the department. It is then their duty to enact the changes designed to make improvements within their department. 

Police Lieutenant 

Another layer of middle-management is the police department’s position of lieutenant. They are expected to take the broad and general ideas from upper-management officers and create a workable plan of action for sergeants and corporals to implement on the front-lines. The major responsibilities that lieutenants have are the hiring of staff, selecting promotion candidates, creating work schedules, and prioritizing tasks. 

In addition, they are tasked with the evaluation and performance reviews of the officers under their command to identify areas of needed improvement. Oftentimes, lieutenants work with other law enforcement agencies and represent their precinct at civic meetings, schools, and community events. Police officers with proven leadership and exceptional public relations skills make good sergeants. 

Police Captain 

Upper management in a police department begins with the captain. This position reports directly to the chief, or in larger precincts, to the deputy chiefs. Tasks include monitoring programs, tracking budget spending, and enforcement of department policies. 

Police captains are responsible for fostering citizen responsibility and engagement in policing the community. For that reason, they need to be great at creating a dialog with the residents of the neighborhood. Additionally, police captains conduct research and formulate reports on crime trends of the community.  

Deputy Police Chief 

Found in large precincts, deputy police chiefs take on a role similar to captains while being at the ready to handle tasks of the chief. They are tasked with maintaining an effective administration of officers and personnel staff. Often, they are responsible for monitoring issues of compliance. 

Deputy police chiefs must stay up-to-date on city ordinances, department regulations, and changes to laws. They oversee budget decisions and choices regarding the resources of the police department. Most importantly, deputy police chiefs engineer crime prevention programs to be implemented by the department and the community they serve. 

Chief of Police 

At the top of the police department hierarchy sits the chief of police, police chief, or sometimes referred to as a commissioner. Whatever the title, chiefs oversee every aspect of the police department with a goal of increased effectiveness and safety for officers and the community. 

Unlike the previous positions, police chiefs are appointed to their position. In most situations, the selection is made by the mayor, a city official, or a group of city officials. As head of the police force, they work in tandem with the mayor and the city’s governing body. 

Police chiefs spend a substantial amount of time reviewing cases to identify trends in criminal activity in the community. They use the information to construct ideas for programs that would address the problems specific to the area. Chiefs rely on their team of deputies and captains to formulate action plans from the ideas. 

How Police Officers Get Promoted: the Complete Guide 

Training Timeline 

Climbing up the hierarchy of a police department requires putting in the time and working hard to earn the promotion. Some promotions require obtaining a college education, often in the field of criminal justice or related specializations. Let’s take a look at a general guideline regarding how long it takes to make rank. 

Academy and Training 

Every police officer in the United States must graduate from an accredited police academy and then complete field training. During the six months at the academy, students will learn the basics of law enforcement. After that, they will spend 8-12 demanding weeks in the field training officer program. 

During field training, individuals will be put to the test on everything they learned at the academy. Each officer will be evaluated throughout the program to ensure they meet the criteria to be an auspicious police officer. After successfully completing the field officer training program, the next step is often a probationary period. 

First Year Officer 

Training doesn’t stop just because school is finished. The first year on the job will provide an abundance of real-world learning experiences. As a first-year police officer, every action is watched closely by the supervisor. 

This probationary period is to ensure officers are performing their job safely and in compliance with department policies. Dismissal for misconduct can occur much more easily at this level because first-year officers are not at liberty to file a grievance if they are dismissed.

Want some tips about the police exams? Read this article: 

Time to Choose 

Policies will vary among departments and precincts, but in general, the opportunity to choose a specialty will be available 1-2 years after the probationary period ends. This step is known as a lateral move rather than a promotion in rank. Police officers wanting to advance to the highest level of the hierarchy should spend time in as many specialty departments as possible. 

Contingent upon the size of the police department and the location, there are numerous special units from which to choose. Working in the K-9 unit, becoming an investigator, or joining the SWAT team are all lateral moves that will offer advancements in the rank of that department over time. 

Level One Manager 

Making the rank of sergeant can take anywhere from 5-10 years. During that time police officers can spend time learning the responsibilities expected of a sergeant. More importantly, those years can be spent working in as many departments and specialty units as possible.  

Promotion to sergeant is likely to require college-level course work and often a degree. In addition to education, police officers who are highly involved in the department are favored for promotion to sergeant. High marks on performance evaluations will certainly increase the chances of moving up to sergeant. 

How Police Officers Get Promoted: the Complete Guide 

Next Levels of Management

At this point in a police officer’s career, promotions begin to come quicker for those who work hard. Police officers who are highly skilled at managing people and resources are great for these ranks. Reaching the middle-management levels of lieutenant and captain can happen in as little as a year.  

Lieutenants are considered to be the shift managers of the precinct while captains play the role of operations managers.  Police officers can expect to reach the level of lieutenant somewhere within 7-15 years of their career. Reaching captain status can take roughly 9-20 years after becoming a police officer.  

Upper Management 

The police department hierarchy puts deputy chiefs and chiefs in charge of the entire city’s police force. Some cities have one or two police department precincts while bigger cities like New York have 77. As the head of the police force, police chiefs are responsible for every officer and their performance. 

An officer wanting to be chief must have a stellar resume of education and experience to even be considered for this appointed promotion. Police chiefs have a minimum of 20 years under their belt with a considerable amount of that time in management positions. Many cities require the chief of police to hold a master’s degree while a few smaller towns may only require a bachelor’s.  


Related Questions

How much does a police academy cost? 

The tuition and fees required for a police academy will vary from state to state. For example, at Eastern Florida State College, the tuition for in-state cadets is $1,971.20. Lab fees are an additional $536.61 and uniforms cost $376.00. The total cost of a police academy for a Florida resident is $3021.81. 


What college degree programs do police officers choose?

The most obvious degree choices are Criminal Justice, Law Enforcement & Public Safety, and Law degrees. Next are the Social Science degrees like Psychology, Sociology, and Criminology. Finally, there are the less obvious degrees beneficial to police officers. Those are Computer Science, Finance, and Foreign Language. 


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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.