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Police Promotions; Climbing the Law Enforcement Ladder.

Jun 20th, 2023
police promotions

Climbing the Law Enforcement Ladder

At some stage in your law enforcement career, you will think about wanting a promotion.

Everyone has their own ambitions. Some officers are content where they are, but others seek to climb the law enforcement ladder – hoping, for example, to become lieutenants or majors or, at the very top, the chief of police.

There is no single, universal promotion pathway in law enforcement. You will find different pathways across the various departments in the country. It depends on your experience, the value of that experience, and sometimes the academic background you have taken up to this point. It also depends on the size of the police department. Larger departments tend to have a higher number of promotions than smaller departments, which tend to rely on seniority. Depending on the role you wish to join, you are likely to undertake an additional police exam.  

Here, we have put together some helpful insights into the various roles you may be interested in – discussing what these roles entail and the steps you can take to earn that promotion.

How to Move Up the Ranks

The most suitable officer for promotion tends to be an officer who has gone out of their way to proactively become the most well-rounded officer.

By well-rounded, we mean an officer who works on all assignments handed to them. Not only diligently working on the assignments but going well beyond the minimum standards expected. These are officers who think about the value of their work, how to add value to that work, and who don’t passively work on assignments without consideration.

Second, more and more officers promoted to the highest positions are trending toward having at least a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree. Research in the past couple of years shows that almost one-third of those promoted to the highest positions in law enforcement have already graduated from either one of these degrees. In other words, police forces throughout the United States are becoming more educated than ever before, and that trend is likely to continue. If you are hoping to be promoted, be sure to have at least one of these degrees. It will massively elevate your promotion prospects.

Furthermore, officers with military experience are also looked upon as having added value to their promotion prospects. This is particularly true if your military experience included a significant leadership component.

Remember, for positions such as commander, assistant chief, deputy chief, and chief of police, you will likely need to work with other departments and with the media.

It’s important that police officers have the skills necessary to:

  • Lead, manage, and motivate teams.
  • Communicate concisely and effectively, often to the media.
  • Develop strategies to improve the operation of the department.
  • Manage the administration and operation of an entire department.

Responsibility, Promotions, and Work Ethic

Responsibilities increase the further you ascend police promotions.

Though this may sound obvious, you would be surprised at just how many officers apply for police promotions when they have not demonstrated to the department that they can shoulder additional responsibility. The department needs to be assured that you have the professionalism needed to adopt any added responsibility. The best way they can establish this is by assessing your history at the department.

Interview teams will ask questions about the applicant, including:

  • Has the applicant taken on responsibility in their career to date, and how did they manage?
  • Has the applicant proactively sought to shoulder more responsibility in the department?
  • In their military or academic experience to date, did the applicant demonstrate added knowledge of how to take on and react to responsibility / added pressure?
  • Has the candidate a clean record with the police department?
  • Does the candidate currently work well within teams, and have they demonstrated team-building skills in practice?
  • What officer experience has the applicant had so far, and is this sufficient experience to warrant a promotion?
  • Has the candidate demonstrated a strong work ethic since his time joining the police department?

In other words, it’s not just about how many years you have worked for a police department. You may have 5-years’ experience, but what is the value of experience gained in those 5-years? You could have two or three candidates vying for a position, each of whom has roughly the same level of years’ experience. What it will come down to is how the applicant has performed on an individual level, with responsibilities and their proactive and professional approach over those 5-years.

Final Thoughts

The take home message is that if you want to secure a promotion, you must invest more than the minimum standards expected of you.

To beat your prospective competition, you need to prove that you have gone beyond the standards expected and demonstrated clearly to the department that you provide added value to the team and department in a way that your competitors do not. The same is true of the police officer exam.

To beat the competition and make it through to the academy, you have to do more than “just pass”. The same principle applies when it comes to police promotions.

You need to excel to warrant the promotion.

Found this post on police promotions helpful? Become a full member of Police Test Study Guide and gain instant online access to your personal learning dashboard — all the exclusive features you need to excel at the police officer exam and make it into the academy.

Daniel Sullivan

Daniel joined Police Test Study Guide in 2019, and currently serves as a senior executive overseeing course product development. With over 20-years’ experience in law enforcement, Mr. Sullivan began his career in Philadelphia Police Department before advancing to the role of detective. He has more recently worked with police departments throughout the country in the development and preparation of law enforcement exams to ensure applicants meet the standards needed to meet today’s growing challenges.

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Daniel Sullivan

Daniel joined Police Test Study Guide in 2019, and currently serves as a senior executive overseeing course product development. With over 20-years’ experience in law enforcement, Mr. Sullivan began his career in Philadelphia Police Department before advancing to the role of detective. He has more recently worked with police departments throughout the country in the development and preparation of law enforcement exams to ensure applicants meet the standards needed to meet today’s growing challenges.

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