Stars, Bars and Stripes

The very first sergeant on the San Diego Police Department was Jose Cota who was appointed to that position in 1891. Even though he wore a badge that recognized his rank, photos of the era indicate he had nothing on his sleeve to indicate he was a sergeant. The same could be said for the first chief of police Joseph Coyne; he had neither insignia on his sleeve or, as most chiefs of police have now, stars on his collar.

In 1891 Chief Coyne was replaced by William Crawford who, according to the newspapers of the time, wore a blue coat with two stars adorned to the collar.

By 1909 Chief Keno Wilson wore three stars on his collar as recognition of the top office. That three star standard continued until 1935 when Chief George Sears elected to wear the more familiar four stars on both his collar and his hat.

In 1940 the new chief, Clifford Peterson dropped down to three stars – something that would continue until 1955 when Chief Elmer Jansen decided to revert back to four stars; a tradition that continues to this day.
Does any top law enforcement official wear five stars? A few; most notably the sheriff of Los Angeles County, the chief of the Memphis Police Department as well as the head of the New Orleans Police Department. They all wear the five star cluster.  Los Angeles Police Commissioners also have five stars but they are largely symbolic ranks and not actual authoritative titles.

SDPD Sergeants began to wear the traditional three stripes on their sleeves around 1905.  In 1909 Roundsmen began to appear on San Diego streets. Sporting two stripes on their sleeves, the rank was above patrolman but below sergeant. In 1915 the rank was renamed corporal before the two stripe rank was abolished in 1919. In 1978 the two stripe rank returned with the name of Agent. Now it is also being abolished through attrition.

In the 1940’s the rank of Inspector first appeared. Above a captain but below an assistant chief, the rank was represented by a single star on each side of the collar. Later the rank was renamed Commander before it was abolished completely by Chief Jerry Sanders in the 1990’s. Sanders also renamed the two star rank traditionally known as Deputy Chief to one called Assistant Chief. The second in command was now called “Executive Assistant Chief.”

With the exception of a two star rank once called “Chief of Detectives” the names of the rest of the SDPD ranks have pretty much been the same since their inception. 

With that said it is interesting to look at what other police departments do. The New York City Police Department has a rank system that includes Inspector and Deputy Inspectors, something few departments have a need for. The Rhode Island State Police is lead by a Colonel and his/her second in command is a Major. Both of these ranks wear collar insignia that is equivalent to their military counterparts. Other departments, mainly in the Midwest, have their chief of police wear colonel insignia.

Perhaps one of the most complex rank systems in law enforcement exists within the Los Angeles Police Department. The police officer rank is broken up as I, II, and III however those ranks have specialties that have add on pay grades. For example, a senior police officer or a field training officer with two stripes would be called a PIII. If that officer wore two stripes with a star under it, he/she would be known as a PIII+1. The PIII rank can go all the way to a PIII+4.

The Sergeant’s rank is also divided. A Sergeant I wears the traditional three stripes on the uniform sleeve. Sergeant II is recognized with a rocker underneath.  So what is the difference between a I and a II? A II has more complex job duties.

The Detective rank is broken up into three categories. When in uniform a Detective I can be recognized by two stripes on the sleeve with a diamond underneath. A Detective II also has a diamond underneath three stripes and has Sergeant duties. A Detective III is the rarest of the investigative ranks and is represented by three sergeant stripes, a diamond and a rocker.  For comparative purposes the detective III rank would have the same duties as an SDPD lieutenant.

There are also divisions of the rank of Lieutenant, Captain and Commander but perhaps the most confusing is the three star rank.  The rank is generally referred to as “Assistant Chief” however; a Deputy Chief II would also have 3 stars. So what does a Deputy Chief I wear?  Only 2.

Would San Diego ever have such a complicated rank system?  Probably not, we just aren’t as large and diverse as the LAPD or NYPD.  But, as the cyclical economy improves one would have to think we are poised for rapid growth to make up for the years of cutting. Perhaps the first change we will see is the reintroduction of the one star commander rank? There is a need for it so stay tuned.