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Field Training Programs: History and Tips

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When the game, the show, or lives are on the line what does it take to consistently perform at your best?  This is a question that continues to come into focus for public safety agencies around the country. It’s natural to imagine what we “want” to do in that critical moment, but how do you make the jump from dream to reality?  Hall of Fame basketball player Michael Jordan used to spend hours practicing his 3 pointers each one like the game was on the line. (ESPN) Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bruce Springsteen gives credit to his mentor, fellow musician Pete Seeger for much of his success. Michael Jordan and Bruce Springsteen didn’t get to where they were in their careers by learning from a book or doing it alone. Springsteen had to learn from others and Jordan had to shoot like his opponent was pressuring him.

Public safety professionals put their lives on the line everyday to protect us. They can’t just be asked to take on that responsibility without proper training and mentoring. Star athletes, great entertainers, and public safety officers know that good coaching and plenty of practice are the keys to success.  However, to make training as realistic as possible there has to be a plan. In public safety, you have to bring new hires on board and ensure they have the right mentors to get them up to speed and avoid common hurdles.  For law enforcement, the plan started nearly 60 years ago with the creation of a Field Training Program.

The History

Until the 1950s police departments did little to train and evaluate their new recruits before allowing them to take to the streets.  According to Robert Sullenberger of Kaminsky, Sullenberger and Associates, “New officer training really depended on the agency.  They were hired, then assigned to a senior officer for about two weeks. Then let loose to learn by trial and error on their own.”  Sullenberger added that survey data showed it could take officers nearly two years to get used to handling situations.  During this time police academies were popping up, classroom work in the form of lectures and textbook testing were added, but even then the classroom environment didn’t always translate over to create effective officers in the field. Often times it was hard for trainees to make the connection from classroom theory to real application.(San Jose PD)

As the 1960s hit, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement had a heavy impact on the country.  Officers were now faced with protests, which challenged their training.  As many protests were handled poorly, it became more apparent that there was a disconnect between training a new officer and their ability to perform. In response President Lyndon Johnson created the President’s Commision on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in 1967.  The commission released a range of police department reform suggestions including more focus on the hiring and training of new officers. (Challenge of Crime, 1967)  Additionally, changes came to civil laws allowing civilians to sue government employees for negligence.  According to Sullenberger, “This is when community policing really got started and agencies needed to train their officers as a way of taking better care of the community.”  Between the war and race protests, civil law changes, and new reform suggestions from the White House a shift was starting to take place in law enforcement training.

The Change

The shift to training was expedited for the San Jose police department when one of its new officers was involved in fatal car accident shortly after training ended. During training this rookie officer was evaluated by peers and supervisors to be inadequate in areas such as judgment, safety consciousness, and work quality.  Still, this officer was allowed to continue working because the training program had no accountability. (Kaminsky, 2002) Shortly after completing his training, the new officer caused a car accident with his police cruiser that injured one citizen and killed another. This tragic incident inspired Lieutenant Robert L. Allen to develop the first framework for the newly adopted mentorship program based loosely on a military training model. This 8 week field training program included the use of a Daily Observation Report (DOR) to record the daily grades for each recruit. This program was adopted by the San Jose PD in 1971.(Kaminsky, 2002)

In 1973 the program underwent another revision to include 31 key performance categories.  These categories were chosen based on a psychologist’s review of over 3,500 DORs with 10,000 behavioral descriptions. (San Jose PD) Once those were selected a numeric seven scale rating system and standardization guidelines were created to help each training officer grade appropriately. This revised model, later termed the “San Jose Model”, had a trainer or mentor give guidance on different performance categories, rate the trainee in each category daily, and then end after 14 weeks with an oral exam.  According to Sullenberger, “This decreased the amount of time it took a new officer to feel comfortable handling certain situations from nearly two years down to only 14-16 weeks.”  With a standardized field training program, agencies now had the training documentation needed to better manage the trainee and determine who would move on from the program, forever impacting law enforcement.

The Spread

For the last 40 years the San Jose field training model has been the most predominantly used on boarding program across North America in agencies both large and small, although some trainers and agencies have made modifications in recent years.  Common variations include modifying the performance categories, changing the rating scale, adjusting the length of training, and even adding a detailed activity-tracking log.  The biggest variation to come about in law enforcement is the Reno or PTO model created in 1999 under a COPS grant. (PTO Overview) This model was created to use problem-based learning and is intended to help incorporate more community policing and problem solving skills into the training process.  

Due to its court tested and EEOC defensibility, Field Training Programs like the San Jose Model have spread to other areas of public safety including communications/911 centers (called the CTO program), EMS and fire agencies, corrections, and even private security.  Sullenberger notes that as long as you identify the key behaviors of the job, standardized field training programs can be adjusted to fit any type of agency such as animal control. The country has seen a rise in suing employers (for not providing enough time to learn the new role) and an increase in civil cases against government employees.  With this knowledge, it makes sense that other agencies need to adopt a way to track and properly train their new hires to steer clear of any legal mishaps that could occur.

Tips for Success

One exciting aspect of the development of the San Jose and Reno evaluation models is that they can be molded and used for many different applications.  Many agencies have adopted one or a hybrid of the two models, making their own unique program.  Each successful program have a few similar ideas and, according to Sullenberger, must possess these four things.

  1. Strong definition of evaluation and performance categories for the trainer and trainee applicable to the trainee’s job.
  2. Proper training for the agency’s trainers with a focus on adult learning.
  3. A process for documentation to help in the instance of litigation
  4. Good supervision over that documentation to ensure proper behavioral adjustments are being made and awareness to issues as they arise.

The Future

More improvements to the field training program will likely come due to the creation of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  Through this task force the U.S. Department of Justice supports the development of broad Field Training Program standards and training strategies that address changing police culture and organizational procedural justice issues that agencies can adopt and customize to local needs. This new focus from the President will push those agencies that have not adopted a field training program into doing so.  If references are needed to help you create one for your agency, this post on different field training manuals will provide examples of several models to consider.

Other changes are now on the horizon for field training programs. As the world moves further into the digital era, hand written binders of information are cumbersome and do not cater to the younger trainees and trainers managing the workload.  Recruits see the archaic system of reporting and ask “why?”  They want to help move the agency into a modern form of documentation.  The increase of legal cases around training and the need for speedy recovery of documentation, without sifting through long narratives, is a real life struggle for some agencies.  While the workload is ever increasing in the public safety sector, the workforce is not.  Having the time and resources to document the much-needed training information is hard to maintain.  The training process will have to move into the digital era sooner rather than later to keep up with the demands of the 21st century.


If your agency is still struggling with cumbersome paper documentation, lack of a standardized field training program, or in need of a better way to create reports on new trainees, contact us for additional information.  We’re happy to help!