Detective Ranks Explored: What are the Different Ranks of Detectives?

What are the Different Ranks of Detective?

Detectives differ from police officers in their duties. Every detective must first begin as a police officer. While police officers usually patrol communities and are the first responders to both emergent and routine calls, detectives are in charge of investigating. They are usually in charge of solving major crimes like murder and robbery. Most detectives will wear plain clothes (usually a suit or business casual attire) and will drive an unmarked police car. 

Detective stories, shows, and movies have been popular since Edgar Allen Poe first invented the genre with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The long-time success of shows like Law and Order, CSI: Crime Scene Investigators (and its many spin offs), and the way Sherlock Holmes continues to pop up in one way or another every couple of years is testament to the public’s love for a good who-done-it. This popularity in media also displays the many different types of detectives: those associated with law enforcement, private detectives, and citizen or amateur detectives. Sometimes these three can even join forces to solve crime! However, getting a conviction comes down to the police departments and keen detectives everywhere. So how are these detectives ranked?

Unfortunately, the answer is not as open and shut as your weekly 45-minute police procedural. There is no national standard for ranking detectives, and it varies from state to state and even department to department. What’s considered a detective in Los Angeles is not the same as a detective for the New York Police Department. But what they all have in common is the distinction of “detective” within their department. In order to give you a better idea of what being a detective means, I will take discuss a few different departments in some major U.S. cities. 


Even though the first municipal police department was begun in France in 1667, the idea of a united police force went from volunteers to professionals slowly. The idea of dedicated detectives didn’t begin until the 1800’s with the opening of the first private detective agency, again in Paris in 1833. But the idea must have caught on quickly as the first dedicated police detective unit in the United States formed in 1846 in Boston, Massachusetts. So how does one become a detective in the United States?

First Steps

In order to become a detective in the US, an applicant must first satisfactorily complete a law enforcement academy after which they will begin patrol duties with a training officer for a period of time. The exact amount of time a “rookie” has on-the-job training also varies by the department. Once a police officer is out of training, he or she may begin to look at a promotion or a lateral move to detective. Some agencies require their detectives to have a college degree; others will accept some college, and others require no post-secondary education.

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Let’s examine the roles and ranks of detectives in a few major US cities: New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. 

New York Police Department Detective Ranks

Detective Ranks - NYPD Detective BadgeThe New York Police Department, NYPD, is the largest and one of the oldest police units in the country. As of July 2020, the NYPD had more than 5,000 detectives amongst its ranks. After the police academy, officers are considered “rookies” for 18 months. After that, a promotion to detective is based on merit. This means an officer cannot apply for or test into the rank of detective.

However, this “promotion” to detective is a lateral one. Detectives in the NYPD have the same rank as uniformed officers and those below the rank of Sergeant. New detectives start as a “third grade” detective. They are then promoted to “second grade” and “first grade.” These promotions do raise the pay grade but do not raise the rank. 

Moving up in the ranks as a NYPD detective is merit-based as well. Once promoted to detective, there are many different divisions an officer could be assigned to, including special victims, computer crimes, animal cruelty, cold cases, etc. Being promoted to detective in the NYPD comes with an additional change. It is known colloquially as “getting a gold shield” since shields (badges) starting with the rank of detective are gold versus the silver of uniformed police officers. 

Chicago Police Department Detective Ranks

The Chicago Police Department, CPD, is the second largest municipal police department in the US. Chicago’s first detective department began in 1860. Chicago PD has a separate, specific bureau for detectives. CPD detectives are not considered ranking officers. They are officers which are assigned to specific units like violent crimes, narcotics, internal affairs, etc. Unless the officer holds the rank of sergeant or above, detectives are considered ranked the same as a police officer.

However, according to the 2020 pay scale for the CPD, detectives are given a considerable jump in salary from a probationary police officer – over $20,000 a year! That is quite a benefit to becoming a detective. But unlike NYPD, there are no separate ranks within the designation of “detective.”

Los Angeles Police Departments Detective Ranks

The Los Angeles Police Department, LAPD, is the third largest police department in the US. Candidates for detectives must first have at least four years of service before being considered for promotion. Being promoted to Detective requires an examination and an interview. Once made a detective, there are three distinctions. Detectives begin as Detective I and are assigned to a specific department where they will perform their duties. Being promoted to Detective II and III is based on departmental assessment and interviews. These two ranks are supervisory roles and oversee first tier detectives and police officers. 

Detectives for the LAPD are also expected to liaise with other departments in the state and across the country in order to help solve crimes committed within the Los Angeles city limits. According to a 2010 report from the LA Times, there is a significant increase in pay between the averages in pay between the officers and detectives for LAPD – often $30,000 to $40,000 and this amount continues to rise as an officer advances through the other ranks of detective. Detectives are also given different insignias in the LAPD. 

New Orleans Police Department Detective Ranks

New Orleans Police Department, NOPD, is considerably smaller than the former three, but including this smaller department is to help show multiple angles to this question. Similar to Chicago, there are no “ranks” for detectives. But like NYPD, a detective is given a gold shield in order to differentiate them from officers. New Orleans detectives have the same insignias as officers but wear plain clothes. There is also a pay increase, but it isn’t consistent based on the rank of the officer who is to become a detective.

An officer must be a senior officer before being promoted to detective. Only about 5% of the NOLA police force are detectives. These detectives are all part of the Criminal Investigative Division, which is then subdivided into 5 different categories. New Orleans also has no hierarchy under the rank of “detective.”

Conclusion – Detective Ranks

As you can see in the previous paragraphs, there is no typical breakdown of rank within the moniker of “detective.” In some places, a detective is the same as a police officer with separate, more specific, investigative duties. In other places, detectives are a rank above police officers, but not above a sergeant.

However, in most cases detectives are given a pay raise to match their increased responsibility and respectability. If you look at other law enforcement departments across the US, you will find that this inconsistency is repeated. Each department has it’s own internal structure and promotion expectations.  Like NYPD, some rely on merit only. Others, like LAPD, allow for candidates to apply and test into the rank if they also pass the interview. Most of the departments that do have different ranks have a three-tier system. Each tier taking on more responsibility with better pay. 

While a more regulated means of determining what makes a detective might seem like a good idea, it makes sense that departments are able to create their own policies in-house. These departments know what is best for their officers and the communities they serve. However, this could become an issue when an officer is looking to transfer into the department from another police department. There is no clear consensus on where a detective in New Orleans would end up in the ranks at the NYPD. Of course, these things would be discussed in interviews but for initial, job search purposes, a potential interviewee would often have no indication of their rank within another department. 

Although there is no definitive answer, this multi-city approach was chosen to showcase just a few examples of the variation that occurs when departments are left to define who is a detective, what duties they will perform, and how they will be ranked. Detectives are often tasked with finding those who do not follow the law and deliver them to justice. This endeavor will hopefully earn them the highest respect from their peers and communities, regardless of rank.

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