Police Officer Career Advancement Timeline

From rookie to chief, make your way through the ranks

NYC policeman's shoulder patch.
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 Getty Images/Brent Winebrenner

While there are many great reasons to choose to work in law enforcement, one reason is the potential for good officers to make their way up the chain. Command structures are an important element of efficient police forces, and officers with the right skills can advance through the ranks. Not every career path is the same, but a general timeline provides a good idea of what new officers can expect.

Police Academy and Training

Everyone has to start somewhere, and for police officers, that is the police academy. Expect your police academy training to last approximately six months. During that time, you'll receive basic law enforcement training to prepare you for the next step in your career: field training.

As grueling as the academy training is, the field training officer program is that much more difficult. The FTO period lasts between 8 and 12 weeks, and you'll need to put all of your academy training into practice. Everything you do will be evaluated to make sure you really have what it takes to do the job of a police officer. If you make it, you'll move onto your next step: probationary solo patrol.

The First Year

Your first full year as a solo patrol officer will be full of learning opportunities. This is where you'll really start to learn the job when you have to make decisions all on your own and be ready to be accountable for them.

During your first year, you'll probably be on probation, which means you still can be dismissed rather easily and won't have any rights to grieve your firing. During this phase, your supervisor will watch you closely to make sure you're able to do your job safely.

Lateral Moves: Specialty Positions

Policies vary from department to department, but a year or two after you've completed your probationary year, you might be eligible to make a lateral move into a specialty post, such as a K-9 unit, a detective or investigator, a training officer, a member of SWAT, or many other specialized positions. 

If you're really serious about taking your career as far as you can go, it's a good idea to get exposure to the many different units in your department.

Moving Up the Ranks: Sergeant

You can expect to be ready for your first step into the supervisory ranks anywhere between five and 10 years into your career. As a police sergeant, you'll be responsible for supervising officers.

That means monitoring their calls, inspecting their cars and uniforms, giving advice and guidance on how to handle situations, and providing much-needed discipline and oversight in the day-to-day functions of your squad.

Middle Management

Once you make sergeant, promotions may come more quickly, depending on how well you perform. You might spend no more than a year at a particular rank. Your next steps will be as a lieutenant and then captain—typically middle-manager ranks. 

Lieutenants and captains provide oversight for their districts. Lieutenants run shifts supervising multiple sergeants, and captains handle overall operations of an entire district or precinct. You can reasonably expect to make lieutenant between seven and 15 years of becoming an officer, and a captain between nine and 20 years, depending on your department.

Taking Command

Upper managers—majors, lieutenant colonels, commanders, or assistant chiefs—set goals for their commands and provide leadership and direction for their members. To make yourself eligible for a command level position, you'll need to hone your skills as a middle manager and work your way into one of several law enforcement leadership programs.

Typically, upper managers in police departments may have anywhere from 15 to 25 years of experience.

Hail to the Chief

This is where the buck stops. As the highest-ranking officer in a department, you are ultimately responsible for how your officers perform.

Making chief requires an extensive resume and education. Often, you'll need 20 years or more experience before you would be considered, including several years in management and upper management positions.