PostHeaderIcon Behind The Pins And Medals: How To Tell Who’s Who

How do officers know, at a glance, when they’re addressing a ranking officer from another department? Well, the answer is as clear as everything else pertaining to law enforcement…it depends.

Police departments use many symbols of rank designation. Some department supervisors wear white shirts (some departments issue white shirts to all officers), while others issue gold badges to their higher-ranking officers. But the easiest way to tell an officer’s rank is to look at their collar insignia. Each pin is a representation of the officer’s rank.

Collar insignias, beginning with the top ranking officer (chief)

An eagle (birds) on each collar – Colonel, or Chief (some chiefs prefer to be addressed as Colonel).

Sheriffs and chiefs may also wear a series of stars to indicate their rank.

Oak leaf on each collar – Major

Two bars on each collar – Captain (the two bars are often called “railroad tracks”)

One bar on each collar – Lieutenant

Three stripes – Sergeant

Sometimes, a supervisor’s rank is indicated on their badge

Two stripes – Corporal

Chevron, or single stripe – Private, or line officer

* An officer without a collar insignia is normally a private.

Hash marks on the sleeve indicate length of service. For example, each hash mark normally represents five years on the job. In the case of the officer above, each star in the circle represents five years of service, plus the four hash marks = a total of 29 years on the job.

Other pins and medals worn by officers may include (from top to bottom):

- Name tag.

- Award ribbons – Community service award, length of service, expert marksman, lifesaving award, medal of valor.

- Pistol expert (to earn this award the officer must consistently shoot an average of 95% or better on the range).

- FTO pin worn by field training officers.

- K9 pin worn by K9 officers

- FTO pin issued by the state of Virginia.

*Remember, ribbons and pins may vary in individual departments and agencies.

Pins on the back of name tags, ribbons, etc. are used to attach the insignias to an officer’s uniform. A small clasp (similar to an ear ring backing) is pressed over the pin tips to hold them in place.

Unfortunately, the clasps often fall off during scuffles with rowdy bad guys, and (if the officer is not wearing a bullet-resistant vest) can result in the pin tips puncturing the officer’s skin.

For a quick fix in the field, lost clasps can be temporarily replaced with pencil erasers.

3 Responses to “Behind The Pins And Medals: How To Tell Who’s Who”

  • Very interesting! I’ve always wondered about this. Thanks for sharing.

    Wonder, however, if this post was prompted by the comment in Castle the other night? (Which I completely missed. I just assumed since Castle is who Castle is, he knew the Chief already.)

  • Lee Lofland says:

    You are absolutely correct, Liberty. Castle immediately knew the officer at the door was indeed the chief of police (4 stars on his collar). Therefore, I thought everyone should have the same knowledge.

  • I was especially interested because two Sheriff’s Deputies responded to our report of a burglery at our home last Monday, and I was curious about their ranking. (We live in the county, so no police jurisdiction.) One did leave his business card, but it only gave his name and “Deputy Sheriff.” The other also had the regular badge and name bar and another metal bar which said he had qualified as an expert marksman. I should have looked at their sleeves, but didn’t. Excuse? A lot to think about at the time. I was interested in their gloves. Black or purple and a bit rough to the touch. “Micro-flex” they said.

    They came in separate cars and both left their engines running the entire time they were here. Is that customary? They gave me the option of fingerprinting or not. I said only see what was on the tool used to pry open a window. Otherwise I assumed any idiot these days knows to wear gloves, and I know what a mess that greasy black powder leaves. No fingerprints on the tool.

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