Some 473,000 full-time officers worked for local police departments in 2020, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. From small towns to major cities, local law enforcement keeps communities safe.
Rising through the ranks to become a police captain requires years of training and experience. Those who wish to accelerate their career path are encouraged to invest in an advanced education that can help them further develop their skill set and knowledge base.
Role and Responsibilities of a Police Captain
A police captain is responsible for overseeing the operations of a precinct, district or police department. The size of the police department usually defines the scope of their role. A major metropolitan police department, for example, typically contains several divisions that each require a captain. Examples include:
- Air support: In the air support division, a police captain oversees the aerial support provided to police activity occurring on the ground. They also play a critical role in selecting and training pilots to meet the requirements to become a command pilot or tactical flight officer.
- Commercial crime: A police captain in a commercial crimes division typically oversees several different units that handle various forms of theft, fraud and financial crime. Examples include the cyber crimes unit, the complex financial crimes unit and the real estate fraud unit.
- Robbery-homicide: A police captain of the robbery-homicide division is responsible for overseeing investigation efforts and surveillance support for homicides, robberies, kidnappings, human trafficking and threats made against fellow officers.
- Juvenile crime: A police captain in a juvenile division typically oversees investigations related to child abuse and child exploitation as well as juvenile narcotics enforcement. Further, these captains partake in youth programs designed to provide guidance to the area’s youth population.
- Narcotics and gangs: A police captain of the gang and narcotics division oversees law enforcement efforts pertaining to narcotics and/or gang violence. They usually work in cooperation with small specialty units and investigators who specialize in either narcotics or gang activity.
The role of a police captain is unique because they balance administrative responsibilities with traditional law enforcement duties. Although not every police captain does the same thing, some of the typical responsibilities include:
Onboarding and Training
Police captains play a significant role in the interviewing, hiring and onboarding of police officers and those in administrative roles. Further, captains are ultimately responsible for ensuring their officers are sufficiently trained and have the necessary resources, such as squad cars, firearms and training facilities. They’re also responsible for ensuring their officers learn and adhere to law enforcement policies and regulations.
A police captain must ensure that their officers are performing to the standards set by the department, which is why law enforcement personnel are regularly evaluated. A captain may rely on several metrics in their evaluations, including citations issued, clearance rate, number of investigative inquiries, arrest rate, citizen complaints and other measures of productivity.
Law Enforcement Duties
Police captains are responsible for overseeing their officers and providing direction during investigations. Some captains are hands-on, while others prefer to delegate tasks to lower-ranking officers so they can focus on department strategy. Police captains are also responsible for coordinating the response to emergency situations.
Police captains are responsible for creating and maintaining budgets, creating and reviewing reports, and managing their officers’ schedules. They also represent their department during meetings with leadership, government officials and community organizations, and are typically the individual who speaks to the media on their department’s behalf.
Improving the Community
Building a positive relationship with the community is often just as important as investigating criminal activity. Police captains are typically involved in developing and overseeing the community outreach strategy of their department. They will often work with local government officials and organizations on ways to make the community safer. They may also use data analysis to identify crime trends and the parts of the community that require the most support.
How to Become a Police Captain
Becoming a police captain requires several years of on-the-job experience and training. Most captains start off as officers and work their way up through the department’s ranks. The following steps can help aspiring captains develop the skills and expertise to become law enforcement leaders:
Police officers typically need to have a high school diploma or GED. Although a degree is not always required to become a police captain, earning one can improve a candidate’s chances of being considered for high-ranking roles. Candidates should consider a degree in criminal justice, criminology, law enforcement, law or a related field and take classes that are relevant to their career path or police division of interest. Business and leadership courses are also recommended. Earning a graduate degree can help those interested in a leadership role stand out from their peers.
Police Academy Training
Completing police academy training is one of the main requirements for becoming a member of law enforcement. It ensures that aspiring officers meet the mental and physical standards to serve active duty. Although police academy training is not standardized, it usually covers the following four modules: police strategy, weapons training, community collaboration and aid, and mental toughness.
Field Training Program
The field training program is designed to build upon the education and skills learned in police academy training. Ultimately, the goal of this standardized training program is to produce competent law enforcement officers that are capable of performing solo policing duties. This program takes approximately eight to 12 weeks.
Probationary Solo Patrol
After completing the field training program, officers begin what’s referred to as probationary solo patrol. It is a probationary period in which officers accumulate on-the-job experience while receiving additional training. The probationary period typically lasts one to two years.
Select a Specialty and Rise Through the Ranks
After the probationary period concludes, officers have the opportunity to join a specific area or division of law enforcement, such as homicide-robbery or commercial crimes. From there, officers can earn promotions by consistently demonstrating high-quality job performance that meets or exceeds department standards.
Police Captain Salary
A police captain’s salary is highly dependent on experience and the region of the country where they work. According to Payscale, the median annual salary for a police captain was $87,000 in February 2023, while police captains in the top 10 percent of earners made approximately $146,000.
Captains who work in cities with dense populations have higher earning potential compared to the rest of the country. For instance, Payscale reports that police captains in New York, NY, earn on average 40.8% more than the national average. The average police captain salary in the New York Police Department (NYPD) was approximately $184,000, according to the latest available data.
Pursue a Career in Law Enforcement
Police captain is one of the most important roles in law enforcement. Captains set the tone for their precinct’s success, ensuring their officers are properly trained and building positive community relationships.
Those seeking to gain an edge over their peers are encouraged to invest in an advanced degree, such as the Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness online program offered at Virginia Commonwealth University. The program helps students develop essential skills in leadership and decision-making, while learning how to develop policies that protect communities from unexpected challenges.
Learn more about the program and how it can help you pursue your professional goals in law enforcement.
Bureau of Justice Statistics, Law Enforcement
Bureau of Justice Statistics, Local Police Departments Personnel, 2020
California POST-Certified Training, Field Training Program Guide
Indeed, “How to Become a Captain of Police”
LAPD, Commercial Crimes Division
LAPD, Gang and Narcotics Division
LAPD, Robbery-Homicide Division
LAPD, Selection and Training for Air Support Division
National Institute of Justice, “The IMPACTT of a Patrol Officer: Evaluating Productivity Metrics”
Payscale, Average Police Captain Salary
Police1, “What Are the Ranks of Police Officers?”
Police1, “What to Expect From Police Academy Training”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Police and Detectives