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Police ranks: what's in a name?

Ever wondered why most of our police officers are known as “constables”? Or why so many American police chiefs are called “sheriffs”? Read on to find out where these and many other police ranks in English-speaking countries came from, and why they are used…

Constable: the term used for the lowest police rank in the UK (Police Constable) and the highest (Chief Constable) comes from way back when the Normans invaded in 1066! “Constable” is an Old French word simply meaning a “person holding authority” (though the French word itself came from an ancient Roman term for a very grand job indeed: the “Count of the Stable”; a chap in charge of horses!) Constables were well established by the 1200s as local volunteer officials whose job was to keep order and apprehend offenders. With the founding of modern professional policing in 1829, the name was retained for the heads of forces and their recruits.

Sergeant: In Norman times a “serjent” meant a “servant” of a nobleman. Some servants had the important duty of acting as their lord’s bodyguard, and so were armed, becoming “sergeants-at-arms”. Eventually the sergeants of each knight or noble were taken into battle with their superiors, forming a lower rank of soldier, and thus, sergeants became military figures. The police took the term for the rank above constable because its members supervise teams of constables in the same way that army sergeants supervise privates.

Inspector: A “spectre” is a type of ghost- and some say we have a few of those here at NESM- but that’s not the only thing that links “spectre” with the emergency services. The word comes from the same Latin root as “inspector”, the police rank above sergeant in the UK. The ancient word “specere” meant “to look”, and the modern word inspector means a “person who looks or observes”. Ghostly spectres, meanwhile, were so named because they were apparitions, seen fleetingly.

Superintendent: After constables, sergeants and inspectors (and chief inspectors; see below) come superintendents, the top rank in Britain below chief constables and their deputies. The word means “overseer” in Latin, denoting a person in overall management of a particular area.

Lieutenant: This rank was abolished in English police forces some time ago but is still used in the United States where it is broadly equivalent to Britain’s inspector rank. It derives from French “lieu” meaning “in place of”, indicating a person who acts on the authority of their superior. In America’s City Police Departments (like the NYPD and LAPD) ranks usually begin with officer, then sergeant, then lieutenant, followed by captain and then chief of police.

Sheriff: In America, the heads of County Police Departments use this title. It follows an old English tradition from before the Norman invasion, when the Anglo-Saxons used the word “shire” for a county, and “shire-reev” for the county’s main legal official. The term sheriff was retained for county officials in England after 1066 (the Sheriff of Nottingham might have chased the outlaw Robin Hood) but today, England’s sheriffs are purely ceremonial figures. In America, however, “Sheriff’s Departments” are county police forces headed by a county sheriff, serving areas outside of cities. County police officers start with the rank of deputy- being deputies to the sheriff- then follow the same sergeant, lieutenant, captain, ladder used by City Police Departments.

Trooper: Above the county police forces in America are State Police, usually known as “State Highway Patrols” because they monitor roads (in the manner of British road policing units). In most of America’s 50 states, a highway patrol officer starts with the rank of trooper before rising to sergeant and lieutenant. “Trooper” comes from French, originally meaning “one who endures adversity”. We still use it in this sense when we describe someone as being “a real trooper”.

Marshal: America’s local police forces are assisted by federal (national) law enforcement agencies. These include the US Marshals Service, founded in 1789. It’s responsible for enforcing the will of US courts, including apprehending fugitives (as it’s portrayed doing in the famous films “The Fugitive” and “US Marshals”). Like sheriff, “marshal” conjures images of the Old West, and there were many local marshals chasing outlaws besides the federal officers. In common with “constable”, marshal stems from a word that meant someone in charge of horses! It was an Old Frankish-German term that developed into a military rank, Field Marshal being the highest rank in the British Army, but not used in British policing.

Corporal: In some countries, corporal is used as an extra rank between constable and sergeant (it began as a further army rank between private and sergeant). One iconic police force that use it is the Canadian Mounted Police. The “Mounties” are the National Police of Canada. They operate as a federal agency tasked with combating serious and organised crime. Canada is well known for having English and French as official languages, and “corporal” stems from Old French through the Latin corpus, meaning body. (The title probably originated for an officer’s bodyguard.)

Major: North American police are fond of this rank. Like corporal, it began as a military term and comes from a mixture of French and Latin, meaning “great”. The Canadian Mounted Police have a sergeant-major rank, while many State Police forces in the US use it in place of “chief of police”. Indeed, America’s states have such differing identities arising from their time as English, French or Spanish colonies, that there are sometimes local variations on the rank titles mentioned in this blog.

And that’s just a taste of the most popular titles used by police officers in English. Many are clearly drawn from the military, which may seem odd given that the founders of British policing were at pains to distinguish their force from the army (dressing officers in blue rather than military red). But the catch-all term for officers- constables- came from a long tradition of law enforcement, and in the UK today, only the rank of sergeant has military connotations.

Many English-speaking countries follow the rank structure of the UK quite closely, adding some variations here and there. America does not often use the words “constable” or “inspector”, preferring “officer” and “lieutenant” for similar ranks. Australia and New Zealand police use the traditional constable, sergeant, inspector ladder, but with the odd intermediary (like “senior constable”). Of course, British police also have intermediary ranks: there are chief inspectors and chief superintendents. This term doesn’t need much explaining; we’re all familiar with what a chief is or was. It comes from an Old French word for leader, and is used in Britain and in America where the chief of police is the equivalent of our superintendents.

One final word we should note is detective. This is not a rank per se in the UK but is attached to other ranks like constable and inspector when an officer is working in the Criminal Investigation Department rather than as a uniformed officer. The word comes from Latin “deteger”, meaning to “uncover”.

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Dave Albury
Dave Albury
Mar 10, 2023

Why do police services in the UK not include the rank of corporal between Constable and Sergeant, as is common in military units ?

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