The interests of public safety demand that law enforcement training programs should be continuously updated. Over the past few decades, federal and state authorities responded to this demand by passing legislation geared toward improving basic law enforcement training programs.

This legislation intended to present officers with realistic challenges they may face and solutions they must employ in the line of duty. Within this real-life frame, individual departments can tailor their own local training strategies to provide the most effective tactics for their specific jurisdictions.

Training innovations emphasize problem-based learning
Currently in the U.S., there are two widely used training methods: the Field Training Officer (FTO) and the Police Training Officer (PTO) programs.

Also known as the San Jose Model, the FTO program was created in 1971 to fill a gap in new recruit training. Inspired by military training practices, the FTO approach pairs a new officer with a veteran. Recruits undergo intensive, broad, hands-on training in the field under the guidance of senior members and, over a span of 20 weeks, go through daily performance evaluations in more than 30 different categories. To officially become a beat officer, a trainee must show strong performance indicators based on the information communicated during training.

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The PTO program is an alternative model for post-academy training that incorporates problem solving and community policing. Piloted in 2000 by the Reno Police Department, with support from the Department of Justice, Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), this method blends problem-based learning (PBL) techniques with adult education theory. PTO covers four substantive topics—patrol activities, criminal investigation, non-emergency and emergency incident responses—and 15 core competencies, specific skills essential to good policing.

Unlike FTO, PTO offers its trainees both academic and tactical training. The program equips young officers with skills to become both collaborators and community leaders. According to a 2007 report from The Police Chief magazine, “PTO-trained officers enter the field with problem-solving skills rarely seen before at such an early point in law enforcement careers.”

With PTO, the paradigm shifts from reactive to proactive decision-making by officers. Whereas FTO emphasizes the mechanical aspect of police work and privileges rote memorization of static skills, PTO values more general but flexible problem-solving that can easily adapt to any future changes in policing.

Adopting PTO is a slow transition
Although the benefits of PTO are plentiful, police departments continue to use the traditional model, which has been tested in court and is well understood. A 2008 survey conducted by the University of Illinois revealed several obstacles to implementing PTO. Despite high interest in PTO by officers, an underlying resistance to change and a lack of understanding about the program slowed the rate of adoption.

Departments that embrace strict PBL will immediately present students with challenges they must solve, allowing the recruit to learn best practices through trial-and-error in real-world situations. Inexperience by novices, however, can decrease the effectiveness of their solutions. By mixing prescribed knowledge with real-world problems, and using worked examples throughout that transition—a blend of FTO and PTO styles—instructors will lessen the cognitive load on new officers trying to learn a new field.

One example of such adaptation comes from police in New Mexico. Following 23 fatal shootings by officers in three years, scrutiny of Albuquerque law enforcement increased. Responding to a federal report, the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy re-examined their training programs to help address problems with use of force.

According to The Christian Science Monitor, the Academy drastically altered its rookie training program to educate agents about using deadly force. Previously, trainees were taught the Academy’s “reactive control model,” which called for officers to draw their guns immediately when confronted by a suspect with a knife. Under new changes approved by the Academy’s board, officers are now taught the “reasonableness standard model.” This training examines case law to explore alternatives officers should consider before escalating toward use of deadly force. These prior examples arm the officers with both situational knowledge and the skills to interpret signals from the suspect, directing the encounter to a safer outcome.

Adopting new training within an organization requires commitment from all levels. Initiatives have greater success when leaders identify individuals who both support PTO and have credibility among peers. Learning strategies, such as journaling and spreading out assignments, can improve the speed at which new knowledge gets applied in the field.

Reform efforts by jurisdictions like Albuquerque represent a nationwide push away from prescriptive learning and toward a blended model that relies heavily on situational analysis and real-world applications. Case studies in Colorado, California, Massachusetts and Georgia credited PTO with improving the quality of recruits by making them more resourceful and more willing to interact with senior officers.

“Everyone is trying to move toward a more up-to-date model based on all the case law and new technologies available,” Greg Garland, a sheriff’s captain in New Mexico, told The Associated Press. “The world is changing, and law enforcement needs to change with it.”

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