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2 reasons why field training programs fail

The concept of field training makes sense to police administrators – it is the logistics of training they may have a problem with

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Field training programs are the most critical within an agency.

Photo/Steve Kellams

By Steve Kellams

Things have changed since I graduated from the police academy in 1989. I remember one of my first cop jobs, working as a deputy marshal in a small midwestern town. And by small, I mean 1,000 people and a half a square mile.

I was home from college for Christmas break and, having finished the police academy only four months earlier, I was as green a cop as you could get. Seeing an opportunity, the town marshal offered me a job for the three weeks I would be home. After swearing me in at the town hall, he handed me the keys to the patrol car and said, “Good luck, I’ll be back from Florida in two weeks.” And he was gone.

Those three weeks were some of the most exciting and terrifying of my life. A 21-year-old kid with no experience, very basic training and no freaking idea what I was supposed to be doing. That was over 30 years ago and while many things have changed in law enforcement there are still a large number of police agencies that have no problem tossing the keys for the squad car to the rookie and wishing them good luck.

And we wonder why we have problems.

In 1974 the city of San Jose completed an exhaustive study on recruit training that resulted in the creation of the San Jose Field Training model. This model quickly became the most popular on-the-job training program in law enforcement and is still in use today, with many agencies adopting some modified version of the San Jose model. There are other training programs available for agencies looking to improve recruit training such as the Police Training Officer (PTO) program and the narrative-based model. With these options and advancements in field training, why are we still having issues with officer’s safety, professionalism and performance?

Because we might have paid for field training, but we didn’t buy into it.

The concept of field training makes sense to police administrators. Take new officers and put them through extended on-the-job training overseen by field training officers (FTO) to ensure that they are productive members of the department. But the reality of the program tends to slap them in the face after they put it into practice. A field training program has two important elements that police administrators hate and consequently lead to programs failing: Time and money.


First, let’s talk about time. Most police departments are shorthanded. The current cries to “defund the police” are nothing new in many communities, it just has not been as obvious.

With 90% of police budgets dedicated to salary, when you cut budgets, you cut jobs. As jobs are cut, workload increases, and, with the ever-increasing calls for service, officers are forced to work harder. Along with cutting jobs comes salary freezes. So now the cops are working harder without even a cost of living raise. Add in the constant cop bashing and it is a wonder we can get anyone to do this job.

If a new officer must attend the police academy that will usually run at least four months. After they graduate from the academy, the field training officer program kicks in. Most field training programs will take at least 12 weeks of intensive training before the new officer will be ready to work on their own. Administrators have shifts to fill, promotions to make and specialty units to staff. They do not have time to wait seven months after they have hired a new officer to count that cop as an available body. When an agency does hire new officers, they need them on the street now!


Now let us talk about money. It costs a lot of money to put a police officer on the street. Each jurisdiction will vary but when you consider testing, training, equipment, salary and benefits it is not unreasonable to look at a cost that’s over $100,000 per officer. That is expensive.

When a field training officer has identified that an officer is incapable of safely or professionally doing the job and they make a recommendation for termination to the boss, it’s not unusual to hear, “But I’ve got a lot of money in them.” When faced with the reality that the money already spent on this new officer is going to be lost, some make a very bad decision to keep the officer.

Will they save money in the long run? Not likely.

Agencies love the notion of a field training program. They put one into their policies and procedures and then completely disregard it for convenience’s sake. This becomes obvious when you look at the field trainers themselves. The most common problem with a field training program is having untrained trainers.

“You know how to be a cop, just teach them how to be a cop” is common advice given to new field training officers. Agencies don’t want to spend the resources to send new FTOs to training and they don’t see it as necessary. But being a good trainer and preparing to teach the new officer is critical in a healthy field training program. The FTO must be able to understand how the new officer learns, they must be able to adapt training plans to effect lasting change in the recruit’s behavior, they must be able to function as a mentor, guide, and role model for the new officer, and they must be able to create a professional, ethical officer for the department.

Field training programs are the most critical within an agency. It is the only program that can lead to a transformational change from within and create a department that is professional, ethical and oriented to meet the common good of society.

If you train a new officer to be a professional, ethical officer today, where will they be tomorrow? Maybe they will become an FTO themselves, training the next generation. Perhaps they will be a line supervisor ensuring that a squad of officers conduct themselves in an ethical manner. Maybe they will become an administrator continuing to make the necessary changes in the department for the betterment of the community. Your drug task forces do not do that. Your school resource officers do not do that. Your tactical teams do not do that. Only the FTO can do that and it is time field training programs get the buy-in they deserve.

Next: Confessions of a field training officer

About the author

Steve Kellams is a national instructor focusing on field training topics for over 20 years. He retired from the Bloomington Police Department as a captain after 27 years of service and continues to work with the law enforcement communities as a host on Blue Canary, a biweekly podcast designed for cops by a cop. You can find more information at