How are police departments structured?

Written by shane hall
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How are police departments structured?
Police work may be a function of the department's structure. (Image by, courtesy of Mo Riza)

Police departments can differ in their specific structure, but in general they contain the characteristics of government bureaucracies and a military-style of organisation that includes an authoritarian chain of command. A prominent social scientist found that police department structures can lead to differing approaches to police work itself.


Because they are agencies of city and state governments, police departments have a bureaucratic structure that includes specific functions and responsibilities for divisions within the department, and a hierarchical chain of command.


Police departments employ a militarylike chain of command that includes ranks such as sergeant, lieutenant and captain. A chief leads the department and in some large cities may have one or more assistant chiefs.


In large police organisations, assistant chiefs may command particular divisions within the department. These divisions may be based on a particular geographic region of the city or on a specific area of responsibility, such as homicide, vice or patrol.


Historically, the public knew little about the operations and structures of police departments. Police-community tensions in the 1960s resulted in greater openness between police and the public.

Expert Insight

Social scientist James Q. Wilson found that police department structures foster different styles of policing.


Depending on their structure, some departments may emphasise community service, while others emphasise maintaining order, with varying levels of discretion granted to patrol officers, according to Wilson.

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