Building better officers: The importance of progression plans and rotational assignments

How do we help officers achieve the best possible level of performance? How do we reduce officer stress and turnover by improving job satisfaction? And how do we ensure we will always have a new generation of officers prepared for the challenging demands of leadership within our agencies?

These are issues faced by every law enforcement administrator regardless of tenure, agency size or budget that can be addressed by a progression plan and rotational assignments.

Much like competitive athletes, law enforcement officers at all levels exhibit “raw” talents, including leadership abilities. Much like competitive athletes, these raw abilities have to be refined and developed through a combination of coaching and experience in order for the officer to develop the skills needed to improve performance, as well as prepare them for career advancement.

Formalized progression planning can ensure officers continue to take on new challenges in diverse roles. (Photo/PoliceOne)

For most agencies, this structured process is known as a progression plan and normally incorporates the use of rotational assignments in job duties outside of patrol. Since individual agencies base their plan on department needs, plans vary in regard to requirements and complexity. The common theme for all comprehensive progression plans is to provide standardized training, education and experience requirements for each rank and level of leadership within the agency, along with rotational assignment opportunities for every officer to develop the skills needed to perform at each level and progress to the next.


For most of us, our police career began in a highly structured environment. Every stage of our pre-hire, police academy and field training was structured so that we had to successfully complete a series of milestones in order to advance to the next phase. This structure resulted in well-defined roles and performance expectations.

Many officers, however, find that once the probationary period ends they are left with little or no career guidance or progression. The goals and ideals that brought them to pursue a career in law enforcement start to fade as the various realities of the job become more prevalent. By their fifth year on the job, law enforcement officers often describe entering a period of burnout, where the demands and realities of the job begin to overwhelm them. Feelings of indifference and apathy can have long-lasting negative effects and cause some good officers to leave law enforcement altogether.

Through the use of career guidance and enhancement tools such as formalized progression planning and rotational assignments, law enforcement leaders can create an environment where officers continue to take on new challenges in diverse roles that will help prepare them for the increased responsibilities of first-line leadership and beyond. Officers will be continually motivated and feel a greater sense of job satisfaction. A more well-rounded officer will have a broader range of experiences to draw from and be better equipped to serve their community.

PROGRESSION PLANNING                                                                                                     

Unlike succession planning, which delegates authority in the event of unavailability or incapacitation of one person to another, progression planning is the formal process of incrementally maturing an officer and preparing them for the next stage of their career or for the next level of leadership within the agency.

The progression plan is the “road map” for an officer’s career and outlines the requirements of each level, coinciding with the agency rank structure.

Normally, the progression is divided into increments of three to five years per level, so new officers have an idea of the roles they will have in their agency over the course of a career. Agency leaders should give careful consideration to the mix of requirement ratios, so that an equal opportunity for advancement exists among officers with advanced degrees and/or military experience and/or years of prior service with outside agencies.

The line of progression up to the first-line leadership position is usually merit based, meaning that promotions are automatic once all requirements are met. Typical entry-level progression and rank examples would be probationary officer, police officer and master officer/corporal. Officers must attain the agency-prescribed mix of training, education, experience, time in grade, time in assignments and total years of service for each increment in order to advance to the next.

For example, a probationary officer may be required to satisfactorily complete all required training and achieve a satisfactory year-end review in order to progress to police officer. Progression from police officer to master officer/corporal may require a mix of four years of experience at the police officer level, five years of total law enforcement experience, and at least three years of experience in two separate rotational assignments or collateral duties such as evidence technician, first-aid instructor, or victim/witness representative.

First-line and senior-leadership progression is normally competitive based, meaning that promotions are awarded to those most qualified; examples are sergeant, lieutenant, captain, commander and deputy chief. In addition to the aforementioned agency-prescribed mix of requirements, these positions will most likely also require the candidate to fulfill additional requirements such as written job knowledge tests and oral interviews. Advanced degree completion and graduation from a command staff program or the FBI National Academy may also be required to assist the senior leadership professional in transitioning from their role as a tactical leader (skills performance leadership) to a strategic leader (mission and resource planning leadership).

Effective and efficient strategic leadership requires a healthy understanding of the agency’s role in community service, so community involvement is critical. Many departments consider including some type of civic leadership course requirement for senior and command staff. These sessions or classes are normally composed of leaders within the civic, academic and business communities and are sponsored by local colleges or chambers of commerce. These programs help participants gain an insight of their community from a different perspective, as well as help them expand their network of community contacts.


Highly skilled patrol officers will always provide the foundation of operations within most conventional police agencies. By providing officers the opportunity to work in various rotational assignments other than patrol, we can build upon that base and leverage new skill sets and experiences in order to develop an officer better able to formulate solutions to both everyday and long-term challenges.

By incorporating the rotational assignments within a functional progression plan, officers gain a practical knowledge of the skills needed for each assignment while they are providing a diverse array of services to your agency and community. These skills can be built upon, so that officers are better prepared for their next assignment, as well as an eventual transition into first-line leadership.

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