Chain of Command

Who does what?

As with any para-military organization, there must be leadership. Although it is often portrayed with fair accuracy in the entertainment media, I still find lots of discrepancies in the roles played. For instance, a Hallmark Movie Channel series Mystery Woman, the lead character’s counterpoint is a police chief. Granted, this is a small town with a small department. However, a police chief should never do his own investigation. A chief’s job is administrative–glad-handing politicians to keep his budget intact and being the all-around nice guy in which the public can put their trust.

Chiefs or Sheriffs   

Bishop Police Chief Chris Carter
Bishop Police Chief Chris Carter

Chiefs or Sheriffs will have a Bachelor of Science degree at the minimum with an emphasis on Criminal Justice or Business Management. State certificates including the POST Management Certificate, the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society Leadership Development Program help the career climber as well as the POST Executive Development Course, POST Command College and the FBI National Academy. A masters of science degree in the above subjects is typically encouraged at this level of management.

Deputy Chief, Undersheriff or Commander

Under the chief or sheriff is a deputy chief or undersheriff. In very small departments the deputy chief is often called a captain or commander. At this level, these administrators are involved in managing whole divisions such as patrol and administrative services. If you are writing a story that is set in a small town, troll the internet for a department of a similar size. Usually you can find the structure which will give you an idea of the hierarchy. It matters–this past year, Kyra Sedgwick ended her seven year tenure on the series called The Closer. As the Deputy Chief, she should have been writing reports and recommendations for the chief and city council, making decisions on personnel issues and obtaining grants instead of solving crimes. As much as I like watching Sedgwick, the show was so unrealistic that I couldn’t watch it.

Lieutenants

Santa Rosa Police Department, Ca, Lt Craig Schwartz
Santa Rosa Police Department, Ca, Lt Craig Schwartz

A lieutenant is assigned to a team, generally. Teams work the same days, thereby enhancing the team concept. A lieutenant is found at all shifts in large departments although in smaller agencies, usually only day shift and swing (afternoons). The night shift or graveyards are handled by “Watch Commanders” who are either lieutenants or acting lieutenants. This is a sergeant who is on the promotional list for lieutenant or has been assigned by an administrator.

 

Sergeants

Sergeants are the line commanders. As in the army, sergeants get most of the work done. A good patrol sergeant will listen to radio activity so he knows who is doing what. They should be available for back-up but not tied up on a lengthy report call. They need to be on hand for patrol or dispatcher direction. Administrative or detective sergeants has a different role in some ways but still are the “go to” person for line officers and civilians. They will also handle preliminaries of personnel problems, give direction and approve crime reports. Corporals are subordinate and have limited report-approving powers.

Detectives

Detectives are promoted patrol officers. In larger departments, a detective may be a sergeant rank. There are also levels of detective ranking depending on promotional testing, merit, and interviews. 

Ft Bragg, Ca Police Department
Ft Bragg Police Department-California

Again, all these structures are varied by department. There are few hard and fast rules but there are some that are never violated. The chain of command is respected–or it should be–to maintain a successful resolution. “Jumping the chain” is a phrase that is often used to describe those employees who go directly to the power when they have a problem. A good leader will refer the employee to their immediate superior.

However, back in the day, it was common to jump the chain. Going to your brother in law to talk about a problem with your supervisor was normal. It led to accusations of “good old boy” systems from outsiders and can smack of favoritism, depending how the contact was handled.

If you aren’t sure how an issue would be handled, check for a “model” agency and call the appropriate ranking person. Most cops love to talk to writers about their job. Your problem may be how to shut your source up!

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