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Back to Archives | Back to August 2007 Contents 

The Police Training Officer (PTO) Program: A Contemporary Approach to Postacademy Recruit Training

By Commander Steven Pitts and Deputy Chief Ronald W. Glensor, Reno, Nevada, Police Department; and Kenneth J. Peak, Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada, Reno

iven the vast amount of information police officers must possess in order to address society’s problems of crime and disorder, in a manner that respects the omnipresent risk of civil liability, the police academy process has always been a vital part of essential formal training, shaping the attitudes and developing the technical occupational skills of recruits. However, once recruits leave the academy, their training is still incomplete: they have yet to demonstrate that they can apply their academy knowledge to their daily roles and responsibilities in the community. To provide newly sworn local personnel with a smooth, supervised, and educational transition from the academy to field training within their respective agencies, the field training officer (FTO) program was developed in the late 1960s, in San Jose, California.1

The FTO Program

Most FTO programs consist of several identifiable phases: an introduction (recruits learn agency policies and local laws); training and evaluation (recruits are introduced to more complicated tasks confronted by patrol officers); and the final portion (the FTO trainer may act as an observer and evaluator while recruits perform all the functions of a patrol officer). The length of time recruits are assigned to an FTO will vary, but the range is normally from 1 to 12 weeks.2 The original evaluation criteria written for these programs were developed in the early 1970s and have remained relatively unchanged ever since.

According to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the FTO program quickly became a mainstay in policing;3 it remains in widespread use today. FTO programs provide agencies with structure and the documentation of recruit officers’ performance during postacademy training. Although structure and documentation are still important today, the Skinnerian behavior modification methods of training and evaluation that form the basis for FTO programs are outdated.

The FTO approach has changed very little during the past 40-plus years. Updating the approach requires a transitional model to provide training that includes more contemporary approaches to policing, particularly in agencies that have adopted community-oriented policing and problem solving (COPPS); this model should also include training that embraces adult and problem-based learning and leadership principles. Toward that end, researchers have developed a model called the Police Training Officer (PTO) program.

Foundation and Rationale for the PTO Program

In 1999 the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, provided a $300,000 grant for the Reno, Nevada, Police Department (RPD) to collaborate with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to study police training and to develop a new postacademy training program for the COPPS strategy. From 1999 to 2001, the RPD worked with experts across the nation to accomplish these tasks, surveying more than 400 police and sheriff’s departments in the United States and Canada to determine what they needed in a field training program. These efforts ultimately resulted in the development of the Reno PTO program.

After receiving another $200,000 grant from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in 2001 for program implementation, the PTO program was deployed within the RPD; later, over a period of several months, police agencies in five other locations (Savannah, Georgia; Lowell, Massachusetts; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Richmond, California; and Charlotte–Mecklenburg County, North Carolina) were selected to test the new program. The final product was submitted to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in April 2002.

The goal of the PTO program is to provide a foundation for lifelong learning that prepares new officers for the complexities of policing today and in the future. This approach is very different from traditional police training methods, which emphasize mechanical repetition skills and rote memory capabilities; by contrast, the focus of the PTO program is on developing an officer’s learning ability as well as leadership and problem-solving skills. Although applied skills (e.g., weaponless defense, shooting, and defensive tactics) are essential, they constitute only one set of skills for contemporary policing. In addition to the advantages already mentioned, the PTO approach is also highly flexible, able to be tailored to each agency’s needs; furthermore, because of its flexibility, it may be adjusted to meet future police training challenges.

Learning Theories and Approaches

During the initial development of the PTO program, researchers took into account John Dewey’s philosophy of learning; Dewey understood that education involves more than simply lecturing facts; it should focus on expanding the intellect and developing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. For Dewey, experience was the most important element in learning. He encouraged his students to learn skills and knowledge that they could apply to their lives.4

Additionally, Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy was identified as highly relevant. Bloom’s cognitive domain for learning was utilized, which emphasizes intellectual outcomes. Bloom’s taxonomy of six learning activities, in order from simple to complex, is as follows:

  • Knowledge: remembering or recalling previously learned material

  • Comprehension: understanding meaning, and explaining and restating ideas

  • Application: applying learned material in new and different situations

  • Analysis: categorizing material into segments and demonstrating their relationships

  • Synthesis: grouping or combining separate ideas to form a new whole and to establish new relationships

  • Evaluation: assessing the material for appropriate outcomes based on established criteria5

As an example, trainees may be asked to explain how to handle a call regarding a robbery in progress. If the trainees can explain how to handle a robbery response as required by policies and procedures, they have reached the general knowledge and comprehension levels. If they can further explain how to control the scene; use proper tactics; coordinate with other units; and make proper notifications to forensics, supervisors, and detectives, they have reached the application level. If, however, the trainees can also analyze robbery trends in the area and perform a problem analysis of conditions that encourage robberies there, they have attained the levels of analysis, synthesis, and possibly even evaluation.

After taking into account the ideas of Dewey and Bloom, researchers also found Malcolm Knowles’s principles of adult learning to be relevant. Knowles advocated self-directed learning and believed that adult learning should produce the following outcomes:

  • Adults should acquire the skills necessary to achieve their potential, understand their society, and be skilled in directing social change.

  • Adults should learn to react to the causes, not the symptoms, of behavior.

  • Adults should acquire a mature understanding of themselves, as well as an attitude of acceptance and respect toward others.6

It was also determined that in order for the PTO approach to succeed, the following learning conditions had to be borne in mind:

  • Adults must be partners in their own educational plans and evaluations.

  • Training material must be relevant.

  • Adult (trainee) learning must be problem centered, rather than content oriented.

Another fundamental theory incorporated into PTO was that of problem-based learning (PBL).7 PBL is a learning process that stimulates problem solving, critical thinking, and team participation; it also attempts to make learning relevant to real-world situations. In PBL, trainees teach themselves; they begin with a problem to solve, rather than being given a problem to solve at the end of the lesson, which is the traditional approach. The aim of PBL is not solely to solve the problem but also to help students fill gaps in their knowledge and involve them in self-directed learning techniques.

In PBL the trainee decides what information is needed and develops a course of action to solve the problem. This approach to learning teaches trainees to look at problems from a broader perspective and encourages them to explore, analyze, and think systematically.

Major Elements of the PTO Program

The PTO program covers two primary training areas: substantive topics and core competencies. The four substantive topics, which define the key phases of training, are nonemergency incident response, emergency incident response, patrol activities, and criminal investigation.

The 15 core competencies—specific skills, knowledge, and abilities that have been identified as essential for good policing—are identified as follows:

  • Police vehicle operations

  • Conflict resolution

  • Use of force

  • Local procedures, policies, laws, and organizational philosophies

  • Report writing

  • Leadership

  • Problem-solving skills

  • Community-specific problems

  • Cultural diversity and special-needs groups

  • Legal authority

  • Individual rights

  • Officer safety

  • Communication skills

  • Ethics

  • Lifestyle stressors/self-awareness and self-regulation

The Learning Matrix

A learning matrix, shown in figure 1, serves as a guide for trainees and trainers during the training period and demonstrates the interrelationships between core competencies and daily policing activities. The matrix assists trainees in determining what they have learned, what they need to learn to improve their performance, and which performance outcomes will be used to evaluate their performance.

Figure 1. The Learning Matrix

The learning matrix includes the core competencies listed above. Each cell (A1 through D15) has a corresponding list of skills (not shown) that are required to achieve competency in the areas listed as well as a series of learning activities tied to each phase of study. For instance, Phase A refers to nonemergency incident responses, and cell A8 of the core competencies for community-specific problems may include the following skills associated with that core competency: identifying different community-specific problems, demonstrating proficiency in creating partnerships, and solving problems specific to the community or the officer’s geographic assignment.

Program Phases

The PTO program contains the following eight phases.

Orientation Phase: Length determined by agency. Many police agencies have discovered that recruits graduating from the academy, especially regional academies, require additional training in agency-specific skills or information. The orientation phase is intended to provide this necessary training and information before trainees enter the field training experience.

Integration Phase: One week. This phase is designed to teach trainees the daily needs of duty. Areas of instruction may include acquisition of necessary equipment as well as familiarization with the various department resources, services rendered by other governmental organizations, administrative procedures, and the PTO learning process. Trainees do not receive an evaluation during this phase.

Phase A: Three weeks. Phase A is the initial training and learning experience for the trainee; it emphasizes nonemergency incident responses.

Phase B: Three weeks. Phase B, the second training and learning experience for the trainee, emphasizes emergency incident responses.

Midterm Evaluation: One week. Following successful completion of Phases A and B, trainees transfer to a police training evaluator and participate in a midterm evaluation; the evaluator uses the learning matrix to assess trainees’ performance during the course of the week’s activities. If trainees experience difficulties and do not successfully complete the midterm evaluation, they may be returned to a prior phase for prescribed additional training.

Phase C: Three weeks. This third training and learning experience for trainees emphasizes patrol activities.

Phase D: Three weeks. This last phase of training and learning emphasizes criminal investigation.

Final Evaluation: One or two weeks. Trainees again transfer from the PTO program to a police training evaluator and are deployed in single-officer status. The police training evaluator uses the learning matrix once again as an evaluation tool. If trainees experience difficulties or do not successfully complete the final phase evaluation, they may repeat a previous phase of training; if a trainee still does not respond to training and termination is recommended, the police training evaluator forwards all training materials to the board of evaluators, which conducts a review of the trainee’s performance, both PTO performance and prescriptive training, before making a written recommendation to the program commander concerning the appropriate outcome. The board of evaluators may also provide recommendations for improvements.

As a component of the PTO program, evaluation serves primarily to support the training of new officers (rather than as grounds for terminating underperforming trainees) and to focus on measuring learning and development. The evaluation process is not based on daily checklists but rather uses coaching and training reports as well as PBL exercises to assess trainee progress.

Coaching and training reports are completed at the end of each week of training. Assessments are made of trainees’ responses to selected calls for service pertaining to the current training phase. Trainees are required to maintain a daily journal of their daily activities, describing what they learned and how they can improve; this information is used to develop the coaching and training report.8

PBL exercises are developed for each phase of training. These exercises provide opportunities for critical thinking and problem solving often missing from traditional programs. The lessons trainees learn from the PBL exercises are transferred to their performance in the field. Trainees develop a neighborhood portfolio exercise during Phases A–D. This portfolio is a detailed overview of the beat area where the trainees work. Included are an identification of key community stakeholders, a characterization of the social and cultural aspects of the area, and a description of key crime and quality-of-life issues.

The Reno PTO Program: An Overview

The RPD, with 370 sworn members and 550 civilian employees, is divided into three geographic areas of command—North, Central, and South—and each area of command is organized into several beats. The department is headed by a chief of police, who is supported by an assistant chief, two deputy chiefs, and four commanders.

The RPD subscribes to COPPS as its core philosophy, with mandatory annual training in such areas as advanced problem solving, situational and environmental crime prevention, crime analysis, and crime mapping. The RPD has developed and implemented the PTO program, finding this approach to be highly adaptable and appropriate for training and evaluating personnel within the COPPS strategy. Indeed, the department is now modifying and expanding the PTO program for personnel in assignments other than entry-level patrol officers (e.g., executive leadership, front-line supervisors, gang investigators, and so on).

Specifically, initiating the Reno PTO program involved the following steps:

  • Selecting 31 PTO trainers based on their prior teaching and training experience, COPPS experience, and interest in assisting in the design of the PTO program; each trainer was awarded a 10 percent pay incentive

  • Requiring PTO trainers to receive a 40-hour block of training regarding the nature and implementation of the program

  • Creating a committee of PTO trainers to plan and implement the PTO approach

  • Holding PTO meetings once every other week to keep the group engaged, which enabled participants to share training ideas and work through implementation obstacles

  • Holding quarterly retreats in order to make adjustments to the program

In implementing the PTO program, the RPD learned a few important lessons. First, early involvement of all personnel at all levels in the department is essential in convincing personnel of the usefulness of the program; ideally, officers receive information about the PTO program at least one year before its implementation and are given the chance to contribute their ideas concerning implementation. Second, command staff should be familiarized with the PTO program at all stages. In addition, the agency should develop and conduct extensive leadership training to effect a change in philosophy and to provide leaders with new standards for performance. Finally, all supervisory staff should be given an orientation to and executive summary of the PTO program.

The Future of the PTO Program

The PTO program is spreading; training academies and law enforcement agencies across the United States and in Canada have implemented it. From this increasing interest, a national organization, the Police Society for Problem Based Learning, has also been spawned, with a Web site.9

As with any major departure from tradition in policing, however, rigorous empirical research on the program is needed. Researchers must determine, for example, whether a significantly higher percentage of recruits pass their probationary period, succeed at resolving neighborhood problems, obtain special assignments, or receive promotions sooner under the PTO model. Although grounded in learning theory and having been tested in six police agencies, the PTO program remains a work in progress.

Preliminary indications are, however, that PTO-trained officers enter the field with problem-solving skills rarely seen before at such an early point in law enforcement careers; furthermore, PTOtrained officers may possess greater leadership potential and an enhanced ability to partner with local communities to fight crime and disorder. The PTO program attempts to provide today’s officers with the necessary knowledge, skill, and abilities for protecting modern society.■


1Glenn F. Kaminsky, San Jose Field Training Model (San Jose, Calif.: San Jose Police Department, 1970).
2Roger G. Dunham and Geoffrey P. Alpert, eds., Critical Issues in Policing: Contemporary Readings (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1989), 111–115.
3U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, PTO: An Overview and Introduction, (accessed June 18, 2007).
4See John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916); John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1929); and John Dewey, How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1933).
5See Benjamin S. Bloom, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain (New York: Longman, 1956).
6See Malcolm Knowles, Andragogy in Action (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1984).
7See Howard Barrows and Robyn M. Tamblyn, Problem Based Learning: An Approach to Medical Education (New York: Springer, 1980).
8See Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995).
9Police Society for Problem Based Learning Web site, (accessed June 18, 2007).



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 8, August 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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