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Chain of Command in Police Departments

by Scott Morgan, studioD

Police departments around the world model their chains of command along military lines. Each rank means new responsibilities and duties, which makes for more efficient operations. But chain of command is also important for discipline. In the often dangerous field of police work, lack of discipline can get people hurt or killed in everyday activities or emergencies.


Uniformed patrol and line officers are the main face of any police department. These are the officers who stop motorists, respond to domestic disturbances or walk beats in an assigned area. Officers rank lowest in the chain of command. Their authority is limited to enforcing the law when called upon to do so; officers make no decisions regarding department policy, nor do they supervise anyone.


Detectives can be of many ranks in a police department. While patrol-grade detectives answer to sergeants, detective sergeants answer to lieutenants and detective lieutenants answer to captains. Patrol detectives may be assigned to special divisions. They respond to crime scenes and conduct follow-up investigations. Higher-ranking detectives may be assigned to investigate types of crime, such as fraud. But no matter the rank, detectives all answer to the supervisor who runs their division.


Police sergeants are considered the lynchpin of most police departments. Sergeants are the lowest-ranking supervisors but are responsible for overseeing the largest group within the department -- patrol officers. Sergeants assign duties, shifts and territories, and make sure the officers meet their daily responsibilities. They also are the conduit between officers and the managerial ranks, such as lieutenant and captain. Sergeants should be able to efficiently disseminate policy decisions from department managers to the rank-and-file officers they supervise.

Lieutenants and Captains

Police lieutenants may be watch commanders, meaning that they direct all police activity in an area during a watch, or shift. Watch lieutenants supervise the sergeants and make sure officers follow the rules. Lieutenants also may be administrative, meaning that they oversee patrol squadrons or detective units. Captains are the commanding officers of specific units or divisions, such as narcotics or homicide. Captains also perform administrative tasks, such as approving budgets. They answer directly to the deputy chief of police.

Deputy Chiefs and Chiefs of Police

Large metropolitan police departments, such as the LAPD, have commanders who oversee sets of divisions, but in most departments, the next step in the chain of command from captain is deputy chief. Deputy chiefs oversee all day-to-day and operational functions of the department and may step in as chief if the chief is unavailable. The deputy is the link between the chief and the captains and reports only to the chief. The chief is the general manager and commanding officer of the entire department and its most visible officer, interacting with the media, officials, politicians, and the general public.

About the Author

Scott Morgan is an award-winning reporter and editor who has covered central New Jersey since 2001. He has worked with the Princeton Packet Newsgroup, US 1 Publishing, "Unique Homes Magazine" and Community News Service. Morgan also serves as a professional speaker and teacher. He holds a bachelor's degree in humanities from Thomas Edison State College.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages, Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images