Pieces of a Whole: Police Department Structure
While the structure is different within each municipal police department, there are general consistencies. Depending on the size of the department, the number of divisions and units may vary. In 2016, the FBI estimated that there are more than 18,000 local police departments across the country.
Each department is unique in its structure and size, depending on its municipality’s needs; however, most departments tend to follow a basic format with a Chief of Police on the top of the police department hierarchy. Under the Chief of Police, there are at least two, but more likely, three divisions: Operations, Administration, and Investigations/Support.
These three units serve unique but equally essential functions.
Chief of Police
Police departments typically are led by a Chief of Police, although this lead role is also referred to as Commissioner or Superintendent. In large metropolitan areas, the head of the police department is typically called the Police Commissioner, and in smaller towns, this role is typically the chief of police. For example, the Boston Police Department is headed by Police Commissioner William Gross, while a smaller town like Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is headed by Chief of Police Robert Merner.
This position is appointed by the town’s leadership, such as the mayor, the city council, or commission. The Police Chief or Commissioner will report directly to the mayor. This role typically requires at least a bachelor’s degree, although many police chiefs also have a graduate degree.
The Operations Division is commonly what people think of when they think of the police department. It consists of the department’s largest number of personnel. Additionally, the Patrol Division potentially has the most contact with the public. Roles within this division can include Traffic, Animal Control, Parking, Community Policing, Patrol Watch, Auxiliary Police, and Patrol Officers. The number of Patrol Officers in a police department (and how specialized the position is) varies depending on the city’s size. For example, Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a population of 105,162 residents, has 215 police/patrol officers, while a smaller town like Concord, Massachusetts, with a population of 17,669, has only 22 patrol officers.
A police department’s administrative division does much of the behind the scenes work to keep the entire department functioning. Specialized services within this department include Record Management, Training, Crime Analysis, Communications, Administration, Property/Evidence, Dispatch, and Fingerprinting. An applicant does not need to attend the police academy or have extra training for many administrative positions.
Although not the part of a police department seen by the public, the Investigations/Support Division is commonly depicted on television shows like Law and Order. This division includes detectives focused on specific public safety matters like domestic violence and vice/narcotics. While the Patrol Division is more likely to deal with crimes as they are happening, the investigators and detectives are responsible for the followup investigation of most crimes. They do this by interviewing witnesses and gathering and analyzing evidence. Typically to become a detective, someone would need to start as a Patrol Officer to gain experience and then apply or be promoted to a detective position.
The police department offers jobs for all levels of training and experience in these three different divisions. Browse jobs in each of these sectors on our job portal or upload your resume for free and be found by police departments looking for qualified candidates.