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Back to Archives | Back to November 2010 Contents 

The Field Training Experience: Perspectives of Field Training Officers and Trainees

Ronald H. Warners, Professor, Curry College, Milton Massachusetts; and faculty, Roger Williams University Justice Studies Training and Research Institute, Bristol, Rhode Island


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ield training is universally described as the most important stage in the process of becoming an independent police officer. During this period, field training officers (FTOs) present recruits with two challenges: to learn the practical aspects of law enforcement and community service and to assimilate into the professional culture of a particular agency. The stakes are high for the recruit and the department, both of which aspire to achieve the best results, and, yet, both FTOs and recruits bring genuine concerns that are often unknown or unacknowledged. The purpose of this study is to open these concerns to the awareness of both FTOs and their trainees, in the expectation that a mutual appreciation will optimize the teaching and learning during field instruction. This study is based on the perspectives of 164 officers, 125 of whom, as FTOs, have trained approximately 700 field recruits. The study asks two basic questions:

  1. What concerns do trainees and FTOs bring to the experience?
  2. What attributes of both trainees and FTOs contribute to a positive field training experience?


Two Field Training Models

Two approaches to police field training are currently practiced in the United States: the traditional San Jose Model and the Police Training Officer (PTO) Program (also known as the Reno Model), developed by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).

The San Jose Model. Police field training before 1960 was largely unstructured.

New officers received little, or in some instances, no “on the job” training. When first introduced to patrol duties, officers were assigned indiscriminately to a senior officer who happened to be working the same schedule. The “training” officer often changed from day to day, and the quality of training varied accordingly. In that most of the officers delegated the task of training felt imposed upon by this additional duty, the quality of training of a new officer ranged from “barely adequate” downward.1

A more systematic approach began in the early 1960s when the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) initiated a training academy that included a recruit training checklist: the first of a series of increasingly sophisticated rubrics by which to evaluate recruits. The strongest impetus for change occurred in San Jose, California, in 1970 when an incompetent recruit caused a two-car collision in which a citizen was killed. The recruit had been recognized as having inadequate driving skills, but the evaluation system had not provided sufficient basis for his dismissal. In response, Lieutenant Robert Allen, whose military background provided the training model, developed a seminal Recruit Training and Management Program that began in 1971. Psychologist Michael Roberts and many others joined Allen over time to compile the Field Training and Evaluation Program (FTEP). The program was specific: Trainees were evaluated daily for 14 weeks on a checklist of 31 discrete skills scored on Likert scales, according to how well their performances reflected the performance of an experienced police officer. The California State Legislature adopted the FTEP in 1973 in Penal Code Section 832.3 as the standard for field training programs. Thus was established the San Jose Model, which continues to be the preferred basis for many FTO programs; it is based on the premise of behavior modification—colloquially described by FTOs as the “I do/We do/You do” method—during which rigorous evaluation of technical skills are aimed at producing a professionally competent police officer.

The PTO Program. Carl R. Peed, then-director of COPS, in October 2003 trumpeted the following headline: “For Immediate Release: First New Post-Academy Police Officer Field Training Program in 30 Years Emphasizes Community Problem Solving Skills over Traditional Response Methods,” thereby throwing down the challenge gauntlet to the San Jose approach.2 In the opening statement of an overview of the PTO Program, the core members observe the following:

This new approach to training provides a foundation for lifelong learning that prepares new officers for the complexities of policing today and in the future. It is focused on developing each officer’s learning capacity, leadership abilities, and problem-solving skills. This is very different from traditional police training methods that overemphasize mechanical skills and rote memory capacities. While static skills are a necessity in police work and are integral to any training program, they constitute only one set of skills needed in contemporary policing.3

The members continue by citing two contemporary issues that the PTO Program addresses.

Two common concerns [stand] out: traditional field training programs have not changed significantly over the past 30 years, and protection against liability. This model speaks to both concerns, incorporating contemporary COPPS [Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving] concepts and guarding against liability through an emphasis on effective training. Moreover, the program can be tailored to each agency’s unique needs. Because of its flexibility, future changes in policing can be easily incorporated into the program.4

At the core of the COPPS teaching perspective is Problem-Based Learning (PBL), based on adult learning strategies. As the learning manual elucidates,

PBL is a learner-centered teaching method that uses problem solving as the vehicle for learning. Under the traditional field training model, a teacher or trainer (the content expert) delivered information to the learner or trainee. PBL departs from this traditional method of learning. It begins with presentation of a real-life problem that the trainee must attempt to solve. The trainee follows a pattern of discovery whereby he or she expresses ideas about solving the problem, lists known facts, decides what information to use to solve the problem (including naming sources for that learning), and develops an action plan to solve the problem. Several evaluation methods determine whether the action plan succeeded or failed.5

The objectives of the PTO Program specified are to

  • formulate learning opportunities for new officers that meet or exceed the training needs of the policing agency and the expectations of the community;
  • have trainees apply their academy learning to the community environment by giving them real-life problemsolving activities;
  • foster the trainee’s growing independence from the PTO over the course of the program;
  • produce graduates of the training program who are capable of providing responsible community-focused police services;
  • prepare trainees to use a problem-solving approach throughout their careers by employing PBL methods; and
  • design fair and consistent evaluations that address a trainee’s skills, knowledge, and ability to problem solve effectively.6

The PTO curriculum consists of two primary components: Substantive Topics and Core Competencies. The Substantive Topics—that is, those that require most critical thinking skills—include Non-Emergency Incident Response, Emergency Incident Response, Patrol Activities, and Criminal Investigation. The Core Competencies, described as “common activities in which officers engage and are the skills they use during the daily performance of their duties,”7 include all of the skills involved in the San Jose Model and a few more, including 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.

Though the PTO Program descriptions astutely avoid using the terms “critical thinking” and “personal engagement,” those terms would clearly be educational descriptors for this paradigm and define the contrast with the San Jose Model that puts emphasis on prescriptive behaviors. Thus one might assume that because the PTO method so closely mirrors best practice by institutions of learning today, the PTO Program would be eagerly received by the policing profession nationwide. This has not been the case.


Method

A preliminary survey was constructed in January 2009 of 10 items that were sent to 40 members of a field training course at the Roger Williams University Justice System Training and Research Institute in Bristol, Rhode Island. Their responses were formative for a 36-item e-mail survey sent via SurveyMonkey to more than 450 officers who had attended the FTO and field supervisors courses at the institute. The 164 respondents, who have trained approximately 700 field recruits from all six New England states, serve as the basis for this study.

Twenty-five items in the e-mail survey are forced-choice items; ten are open-ended response questions. Rather than impose a preconceived coding paradigm onto the responses, multiple categories of responses were generated using responses directly from the open-ended questions themselves, after which similar categories were combined. It is important to note that the observations on the data derived from this population apply appropriately to this population only; extrapolation of observations to other populations is beyond the responsibility of this study.


Findings

Of the respondents, 80 percent rated their field training experience as “very positive” or “positive with reservations” and would recommend their FTOs to others. One in five of the trainees, 20 percent, reported that their field training prepared them inadequately.

This study identifies seven factors that serve as a framework for evaluating the field training experience.

Factor One: Diverse field training practices. Of the 115 officers who responded to the question “How many FTOs participated in your field training?” a surprising 31 (27 percent) replied that only one officer was in charge; 46 (40 percent) worked with two FTOs; and 38 (33 percent) with three. Fourteen officers (1 percent) reported that no formal training was in place at the time of their hire; and 21 (18 percent) said that four or more FTOs took a role in the agency’s field training program. Most San Jose training models have two or three FTOs instructing a trainee.

Of the 121 respondents to the question “Into how may periods was your field training divided?” a surprising 32 percent replied only one period (perhaps more typical many years ago); 18 percent replied two periods; and almost 50 percent replied three periods. The duration of the training periods is likewise remarkably diverse, with 18.6 percent reporting fewer than four weeks; 19.2 percent at four to six weeks; 12.8 percent at six to eight weeks; 13.5 percent at eight to ten weeks; 19.9 percent at ten to twelve weeks; 14.1 percent at twelve to sixteen weeks; and 1.9 percent at more than sixteen weeks. A factor that may influence these wide divergences is that the responding officers have served anywhere from three years to three decades; the training practices three decades ago were very different from those of today and may therefore account for the range of responses.

Factor Two: Disconnection between academy training and field training. Of the responding FTOs, 59 percent regard field training as a “necessary” and “hands-on extension of academy training,” but 41 percent report that relating the academy to field experience training is “the challenge” or that “active policing is very different from the academy.” Anecdotes from trainees suggest that some FTOs even express scorn for the academy, advising the trainees to forget what the academy taught because field training is where real policing begins. While generalizations should not be based on extreme views, the lack of seamless integration between academy instruction and field experience evidenced in this study is a significant issue in professional police training.

Factor Three: Difference in perception of teaching and learning flexibility. Almost one-third of trainee respondents report that their FTOs instructed in an inflexible my-way-or-the-highway style; more than one-third observe that their FTOs “occasionally” adapted to their learning style; and the remaining third of the respondents testify that “the FTO was very flexible about how to teach me best depending on my responses,” as table 1 demonstrates.

Table 1
Did your FTO adapt the training approach to how you learn best?PercentageNumber
(total respondents: 149)
Yes, the FTO was very flexible about how to teach me best depending on my responses.32.248
The FTO occasionally changed his/her instruction approach to better communicate with me.37.656
No, the FTO was a my-way-or-the-highway type and made no attempt to accommodate how I learn best.30.245

Thus, from the trainee perspective, slightly less than a third of this population of 149 FTOs are highly responsive to the specific learning needs of each trainee.


The FTO respondents, however, perceived their own attributes somewhat differently when asked in which teaching topics they had received instruction, as table 2 demonstrates.
Table 2
In which of the following topics have you received specific training?PercentageNumber
(total respondents: 122)*
Learning styles75.492
Personality differences73.089
Techniques for teaching adult learners62.376
How to differentiate field experience training53.365
Basic principles of learning63.978
How to deal with a learning style different from your own58.271
How to be patient44.354
How to judge when mastery has been achived30.337
No specific traing to be an FTO15.619
*The 122 FTO respondents were allowed to give more than one answer to the question

One might conclude from table 2 that most FTOS are confident about their preparation for their role. Table 3, however, suggests otherwise.

Table 3
Do you feel you received adequate training to be a top-notch FTO?PercentageNumber
(total respondents: 122)
I was fully prepared before accepting the first trainee.45.0855
I relied on my "native" teaching skills.27.8034
I flew by the seat of my pants, but made it happen.9.8312
I was marginally prepared and had some difficulties.12.2915
I began as an FTO basically unprepared, and my performance was less than I hoped.5.006

Only 45 percent of respondents to this question perceived that they were fully prepared; the remaining 55 percent report a range of perceptions of underpreparedness. The responses of the latter group could be explained in various ways. Regardless, there appears to be a gap for many FTOs between being given training and the perception of being fully prepared. This may suggest that training needs to include more direct exercise in applying the content of the training, so the training can become functional and perceived by the FTO as contributing to competance.

Factor Four: Timing of trainee performance evaluation An important principle in experiential learning is that the debriefing after the learning incident is where value of the incident is committed to long-term memory. To get an indication of how this principle is understood by FTOs, the survey asks, “When do you review with the trainee the specifics of performance?” The responses follow this pattern in table 4.

Table 4
When do you review with the trainee the specifics of performance?PercentageNumber
(total respondents: 113)*
After set of actions by the trainee56.664
Informally, as the occasions present themselves46.953
At the end of each shift69.979
At the end of each week23.026
*The 113 FTO respondents were allowed to give more than one answer to the question.


The strongest pedagogical response would be to combine the first and third response option. Immediate evaluations combined with a review within a few hours have the best probability for long-term retention. If performance evaluations were given only at the end of every week, the trainee would not likely derive the full learning benefit from the experience.

Factor Five: Concerns of the trainee. Concerns are worry points—issues that tend to influence learning negatively by limiting the willingness of a trainee to engage fully and to trust fully. For FTOs to be aware of and receptive to the concerns of trainees is a very important factor in creating a positive learning environment. To begin to understand trainees’ perspectives, respondents were asked, “In your experience, what are the three biggest challenges for a field trainee?” The four top concerns for trainees center on the following transition issues:

  1. transitioning the law to the street,
  2. adjusting to various FTOs,
  3. adjusting to agency culture, and
  4. being overwhelmed.

In other words, typical trainees, who find themselves displaced from a familiar academy environment where they understood the rules of the culture, are seriously apprehensive about how they will be regarded and how well they will be able to meet the challenges of working with a series of unfamiliar FTOs in an agency culture they do not know.

Nor are their apprehensions limited to these top four responses; respondents reported a wide array of additional concerns: stress/pressure to succeed; ability to retain knowledge; understanding expectations; organizational skills; inexperience; gaining acceptance; overeagerness; accepting feedback; separating private life/profession; displaying loyalty/pleasing all; department support; unrealistic expectations; generational differences; safety; micromanagement; report writing; lack of knowledge; applying academy information; critical thinking; and time management. Because these concerns are so wide ranging, they are likely to influence the learning environment negatively. Thus, neutralizing them as much as possible will optimize success.

Trainees in this study were also clear about the kind of FTO approach they found most conducive to learning. When asked “What attributes of your FTO did you find most conducive to your success as a field trainee?” responses in order of frequency were

  1. gentle approach/reassuring/understanding;
  2. ability to teach;
  3. experienced, knowledgeable;
  4. positive attitude and helpful;
  5. very patient; and
  6. show, not preach.

These attributes, in effect, could be seen as guidelines for an effective FTO.

Factor Six: Concerns of the FTO. Practicing FTOs were asked to reflect on their own performance. When asked “In your personal experience, what are the three greatest challenges that a good FTO faces regularly?” respondents were very clear.

  1. Either lack of administrative support or micromanagement
  2. Effective teaching/pedagogical flexibility
  3. Motivating the trainee

Complaints about negative agency characteristics, such as lack of administrative support, lack of recognition by superiors of the additional time and responsibility of an FTO, and a negative department culture, are frequent factors in this study. Additional concerns were burnout/no down time, no extra pay, and balancing patrol and training needs.

To validate these findings, the same question was essentially repeated in a different part of the survey: “What are three of the biggest challenges for the FTO?” This time, personal responsibilities are represented at a much higher rate by identifying teaching skills/learning styles, personality differences, personal motivation, and patience as core challenges. The differences in responses between these two questions illustrate the double bind that FTOs often experience: A departmental structure that may not facilitate their task, and the insistent demands of being an effective field educator.

Respondents were encouraged to make broader observations by responding to the question “What three attributes are required to be a truly top-notch FTO?” Their responses come closest to a common understanding between the FTO and trainee.

  1. Experience and professional knowledge
  2. Patience
  3. Communication skills

These top three were followed closely by integrity, teaching competence, and adaptability to learning styles. Four of these six attributes identify essential abilities of an effective educator and need to be the focus of continuing professional education.

Factor Seven: Professional altruism. A last survey question reveals what lies at the heart of the typical FTO in this study. It asks “What three most important items of advice would you want a trainee to leave with at the end of his or her field training?” The top 10 responses follow, in order of frequency.

  1. Ask questions
  2. Continue your education and learning
  3. Be safe
  4. Treat people with respect

  5. Integrity matters
  6. Learn from mistakes
  7. Act from reason
  8. Make time for your family
  9. Do your best
  10. Listen

These bits of wise advice perhaps define the finest values in policing and are guideposts for FTOs and trainees alike.


Results

This study identifies seven factors that influence the nature and success of police field training. Field training is likely to be more successful when a greater degree of standardization is brought to both FTO and recruit training. The relation of academy training to field training needs to be strengthened, as does the impact of continuing education on the practices of FTOs. Trainees and FTOs have diverse concerns reflecting their separate roles in field training.


Commentary

This study reveals that field training is addressed in a wide variety of ways among police agencies in New England. Applying the law as a police officer, while enhancing personal and professional competancies as an effective educator, is clearly a pressing challenge for even the best FTO. Continuing education support for developing instructional skills and perspectives is an absolute requirement for every agency.

Without question, a further mandate to the profession is to provide a seamless continuum between academy instruction and field training. The disconnection apparent in this study is perhaps the most important challenge in the education of police officers. In order for the profession to educate its inductees in the best possible ways, police academies and FTOs must no longer work at cross-purposes, but instead must formulate a cogent curriculum where the academy and the cruiser are interrelated parts of a continuous learning experience for the trainee.

Both FTOs and trainees bring a long list of concerns. The apprehensions of the trainees strongly influence their receptivity to instruction. To minimize the impact, a carefully planned series of orientation sessions at the beginning of the training process is indicated during which the comprehensive field training plan is laid out for the trainee, where FTOs anticipate trainee concerns (perhaps even by quoting this study) as well as their own expectations, and where trainees are given an opportunity to voice their concerns. To the degree that their concerns remain unspoken is the degree to which they will generate anxiety and inhibit successful training.

This study also reveals a magnificent sense of responsibility among FTOs and trainees alike. Though both come to the field training experience with very different concerns, both are motivated by aspirations to achieve a high level of professional success. Those aspirations can be significantly enhanced by acknowledging and mutually respecting each other’s concerns, thereby removing many barriers to successful learning.

Lastly, this study makes clear that the degree of knowledge and sophistication by FTOs is increasing, largely owing to the availability of excellent professional courses and workshops and a growing appreciation by agency chiefs of their value for developing the effectiveness of their agencies. Strong curriculum leadership and strong educational support for FTOs by every chief will create a spirit of continuous improvement and ever-increasing effectiveness in the policing profession. ■


Notes:

1Glenn F. Kaminsky, The Field Training Concept in Criminal Justice Agencies (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), xiii.
2Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, “First New Post-Academy Police Officer Field Training Program in 30 Years Emphasizes Community Problem Solving Skills over Traditional Response Methods,” press release, October 21, 2003, http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Item=1021 (accessed October 1, 2010).
3Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, PTO: An Overview and Introduction, 4, http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/ric/Publications/CaseStudiesPDF3.pdf (accessed October 1, 2010).
4Ibid.
5Ibid., 9.
6Ibid., 3.
7Ibid., 10.


Please cite as:

Ronald H. Warners, "The Field Training Experience: Perspectives of Field Training Officers and Trainees," The Police Chief 77 (November 2010): 58–64,
http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/CPIM1110/#/58 (insert access date).

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 11, November 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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