From Rookie to Ready: 7 Field Training Officer Program Best Practices

The quality of your field training program determines the quality of your officers. Learn 7 practical ways to improve your field training officer program.

April 25, 2024

Article Highlights

The success of your officers hinges on the quality of your field training officer program (FTO program). By streamlining and standardizing your program, you can increase the rate of officer success and the quality of service to the community.

Unfortunately, training can vary widely between field training officers (FTOs). Some programs may lack a structured curriculum. Some officers may ignore the curriculum in favor of their personal experience.

Field training is also a complicated process with many legal requirements. These processes are usually manual, tedious, and paper-based. If your agency needed to prove that it properly trained an officer, how difficult would it be to sift through filing cabinets, binders, shared drives, and personal desktop folders?

Each of these challenges, left unaddressed, lower the quality of your field training program. Before exploring today’s best practices, let’s look at the evolution of police training over the years.

The evolution of law enforcement training

The past informs the present and the future. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, it’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.

Until the 20th century, officers learned on the job without any formal training. With little to no mentorship, education, or accountability, police officers in the political era of policing (1840s–1900s) decided for themselves how to handle incidents and maintain authority.

The United States’ first concrete example of formal police training came in 1908, with the founding of the Berkeley Police School by police chief August Vollmer.

Vollmer and other leaders like Richard Sylvestor and O.W. Wilson helped usher in the Professional or Reform era of policing (1900s–1980s), which was marked by enhanced education, training, and protocols for law enforcement. An advocate for education, Vollmer also founded the first School of Criminology at the University of Berkeley in 1916 and helped implement criminal justice programs at schools like San Jose State University and Washington State University.

Governments and institutions across the U.S. started to take notice and follow suit. By the 1930s, approximately 49 states had a police force with formal training. In 1935, the FBI founded the National Academy, which aimed to provide advanced training to in-service officers.

Widespread police reform in the mid 1900s laid the foundation for the Community Era, or Community Problem-Solving Era (1980s–today). Over the past few decades we’ve seen increases in legislation and accreditation programs, as well as a greater emphasis on police-community relationships – all attempts to build trust between the public and the police.

In the 20th century, training often focused on mechanical techniques like driving, shooting, and arrest. In the modern era of policing, however, there has been greater academic focus on nonmechanical skills like problem-solving, de-escalation, decision-making, interpersonal skills, and more.

Theory is one thing; the real world is another. With the advent of the San Jose training model in 1971, police officers started receiving both classroom training and field training to prepare them for the challenging realities of a law enforcement career.

In 1999, the Office of COPS funded a project with the Reno, NV Police Department to develop an alternative field training model. According to the Police Executive Research Forum, “more than 400 police and sheriffs’ departments were surveyed to identify what agencies wanted in modern field training.” After two years of development, the Reno/PTO model was created.

To this day, the San Jose model and Reno/PTO model remain the two most popular police field training programs in agencies across the U.S.

Best practices for your field training officer program

Choosing the Right FTO Program

The ultimate goal of an FTO program is to equip recruits to serve and protect their communities effectively. Most US law enforcement agencies follow a field training officer program. Of those agencies, the vast majority have adopted the San Jose model or a variation of it.

Does your agency have a field training program? If not, research the pros and cons of San Jose, Reno/PTO, Narrative, or Kellams.

If you do have an FTO program, how long have you used it? It may be worth researching other training models or ways to update your current program with best practices.

Let’s explore the two most popular field training programs: San Jose and Reno/PTO.

San Jose Model

Over the course of 14–16 weeks, trainees progress through four different phases and are evaluated across 31 performance categories. At the end of each shift, the recruit’s field training officer completes a Daily Observation Report (DOR). Trainees are evaluated on a 1–7 scale based on their ability to perform certain tasks.

As the first field training model and the training standard for CALEA, the San Jose model is the most widely used field training officer program. It can be adapted to your agency’s needs, and many have modified their curriculum in the following ways:

  • Extending program length
  • Adding new phases
  • Adjusting rating scales
  • Customizing trainee task lists
  • Incorporating new technologies into training
  • Updating training to meet new officer safety and community policing standards

On the other hand, critics say the San Jose model is outdated; it was created during the Reform Era and has only been updated minimally. They claim this model is too militaristic, focusing on failures instead of successes, which could prevent trainees from extending themselves during training (for fear of failing and requiring remedial training).

Reno/PTO Model

The Reno/PTO model revolves around problem-based learning (PBL), a method of adult learning that has been used in the education and medical fields for decades. In this approach, trainees are given challenging situations and encouraged to collaborate with the community and peers to find a solution.

The training program usually consists of 15 weeks with four phases. Trainees receive a PBL exercise at the beginning of each phase. The recruit is also given a neighborhood portfolio exercise in which they identify key characteristics (crime, cultural, etc.) of the assigned area. Although daily journals are kept, they are for training purposes only, not evaluation.

The Reno/PTO model does meet CALEA training standards, and advocates say it fosters critical thinking and problem-solving – two skills required for modern community policing.

A research article by the Police Executive Research Forum highlights some additional differences between the San Jose and Reno/PTO training models.

Automating Processes

In addition to their own workload, FTOs must complete extensive reporting. Without an easy way to document trainee progress in the moment, trainers often work hours of overtime every shift to finish reporting. If materials aren’t easily accessible, their time is further wasted by sifting through paperwork.

These demands cause two challenges. First, it can lead to frustration and burnout over time. Second, it forces field training officers to rely on their memory of the trainees performance, as well as any notes compiled during the day. This increases the chance of human error, leading to less accurate or even unfair evaluations.

Field training software empowers FTOs to complete reporting in the moment, simplify evaluations, and drastically reduce the burden of documentation. No more digging, no more wasted time, just easy access to all relevant training materials and documentation.

Selecting Field Training Officers

Selecting the right FTO is key to training competent and ethical officers. You have likely already identified some of your best officers and sergeants. As you continue your search for field training officers, look for following traits:

  • Strong leadership: FTOs should be natural leaders, capable of inspiring recruits and setting a positive example for them to follow
  • Teaching ability: Not everyone can teach effectively. It requires patience and an ability to simplify complex tasks, clearly explain protocol, and adapt their teaching style.
  • Commitment to mentorship: Being an FTO requires extra work and documentation. Without a passion for mentoring the next generation of officers, an FTO will quickly burn out.
  • Integrity and Professionalism: As role models, your field training officers should have a sterling reputation, strong work ethic, and healthy relationships with members of the community.

Gathering and Providing Feedback

Provide immediate and continuous feedback to trainees – both good and bad. Although daily observation reports and weekly evaluations are useful, real-time feedback empowers trainees to learn in the moment, when the feedback is most relevant. By providing real-time feedback, you can:

  • Accelerate learning
  • Build confidence
  • Prevent bad habits
  • Reinforce good habits
  • Tailor training to the rookie

Give FTOs and trainees an opportunity to provide feedback on the training program. As the people most directly involved and impacted, they can provide valuable insights. It may be helpful to make the feedback anonymous to inspire honesty without fear of repercussion, particularly for trainees.

Adapting to Learning Styles

Learning styles shift from generation to generation, from one person to the next. Although recruits need to adapt to the training curriculum, your FTOs can maximize learning by adapting training to various learning styles.

Hands-on training is necessary in police officer field training, obviously, but some people are auditory and visual learners as well. Field training officers can cater to the widest variety of learning styles using this six step approach:

  1. Tell your trainee how to it
  2. Show them how to do it
  3. Allow them to perform it
  4. Evaluate their performance
  5. Provide corrective feedback
  6. Have trainee repeat it until proficient

FTOs should strive to create excellent cops, not “mini me’s.” Trainees should be encouraged to adopt skills to their unique style, not perfectly imitate their FTO.

Standardizing Training

Training methods can vary by trainer, leading to trainees with different levels of skill and knowledge. Some seasoned FTOs may even teach from personal experiences instead of the required curriculum. This opens officers and agencies to liability.

Field training software helps agencies standardize training, support FTOs, and mitigate liability. Software solutions support different training models, so make sure you find one that supports your current or preferred program.

Standardization also makes it easier to identify patterns – what are your officers consistently doing well or poorly? The right software can help you plug the leaks in your training program, so to speak, so you can identify patterns and fill gaps.

Taking Advantage of Technology

The quality of your field training program determines the quality of the officers you produce. In the quest to train recruits effectively, technology is your friend.

Field training software, like PowerReady, protects your agency by managing, tracking, and proving training – all from one centralized training system.

PowerReady helps you with each of the best practices above. Automate tedious documentation processes for your FTOs. Gain visibility into trainee progress and program metrics with real-time dashboards and data insights. Standardize your curriculum and use your preferred training model (we provide multiple models including San Jose, Reno, Kellams, Narrative, and more).

Are you ready to save time and resources while producing confident and competent officers? Learn how PowerReady can improve your field training officer program today.

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