What can your organization learn from how police officers are “field trained?”

In one of my inquiries into a sales company’s training philosophy, I asked a close friend, "Do you do any on-the-job training?…in real life situations?" My friend dismissed the question…."Oh no! We have way too much at stake."

Are you kidding me? What stakes? Lose a sale you weren’t guaranteed in the first place?

I just shared a police squad car with a kid who still counted the time since his graduation from the police academy in hours. Driving lights-and-sirens to an emergency with a youngster who wouldn’t be ready for this job for several months yet. Don’t tell me about high stakes.

But…of all my complaints of police work, we definitely kick ass at one thing: Field Training.


Most police officers in America get hired as a recruit before attending a formal police academy. Upon graduation from the academy, whether right away or after a week or two of in-house training, the probationary police officer hits the street. S/he’s paired up with a seasoned veteran dubbed a Field Training Officer…abbreviated “F.T.O.” in cop vernacular. 

The anointing as FTO comes with a rather obvious tagline: 
We want more officers like you.
By switching FTOs each month for three months, the probationary officer experiences a variety of personalities, flavors, and styles of policing. Over this period, with the FTOs gradually relinquishing more and more authority, the probationary officer assumes increasing responsibilities. These training programs are structured with daily performance evaluations and checklists of topics and tasks. Towards the end of the third partnership, the probationary officer should be taking the lead on most (if not all) of the calls for service and self-initiated enforcement and community-based activity. All of this is done with the end goal of fielding a ready and capable individual problem-solver. But there is one more step: Shadowing.


The one obstacle with deploying a squad car with a probationary officer and an FTO is that most everyone knows who is who. Grandmas. Speeding soccer moms. Hardened street punks. It doesn’t take much to figure out the kid with the dark baggy uniform and shiny leather gear is the trainee; the other officer is the trainer. And quite often….I argue more times than not…citizens and criminals focus their attention and conversation towards the seasoned copper. It just happens that way.

So in that fourth and final phase of field training, the FTO ditches the uniform. S/he becomes a “shadow”…wearing plain clothes in an attempt to put all the focus and attention on the probationary officer. It’s not a perfect system, especially for smaller communities; locals recognize the FTOs. But not always. The regular dress allows the FTO to more easily step back, blend in, and evaluate the probationary officer as a solo problem-solver in the wild.

Some shadow FTOs go to great lengths to disguise the training role. Others simply explain, “I’m a police officer, doing quality control, making sure these young officers are doing the right things out here.” One thing is fairly consistent across the board: shadow FTOs do not help the probationary officers. This is the time for probationary officers to lose their crutches and find other resources to answer their questions. It is a test. The problems are real. So are the people. So are the threats.

The shadow phase is all about proving one’s worthiness to be entrusted with the awesome powers that come with the badge and gun. It’s in these last few weeks where an experienced officer can still quickly step into and rescue a downward-spiraling situation if the probationary officer loses control or makes a terrible decision. It’s the final safety net that ensures public trust, quality service, life safety, and citizens’ rights.

Not all police academy graduates will meet their shadow FTO, let alone pass this final phase…some are forced to find other employment well before that.


From a pure financial standpoint, the FTO process is an expensive one. Most police agencies are paying “double for single” service for four months for each new officer. However, the cases of condensing the timeline are few and far between, and usually only granted in the most unique situations. The burden of prepping a “new blue” cannot be overlooked, especially in the current public sector budget crunch. Shortcutting the system is “penny wise but pound foolish.” It’s a necessary investment in the safety and wellbeing of the community.

There is no instruction or education in all of police work that is so rife with standards, documentation, testing, and evaluation as in Field Training. FTOs experience some of the highest stress levels of all police assignments and roles. Their duty and responsibility is so incredibly great: enter into danger with a partner who has yet to prove him/herself. But the amount of belief and empowerment is also unmatched. No where else have I ever seen an untested employee given so much trust and autonomy with so much on the line.

Yet given these challenges, Field Training continues. We continue to have veteran police officers step up to become FTOs. Why? Because they want to have an impact. They want to be a part of the development of their peers and future partners. They want to leave a mark on the organization. They want to share their lessons, and failures, and successes with someone else who can learn from them.

It boils down to a commitment to training. And not just cerebral education in the safety and isolation of a slideshow or chalkboard. But true, authentic, raw, practical, emotional experiences that test a person’s mettle. It’s called real life. There is no substitute.

Field Training is the thing we do best in our whole industry. It’s the scariest, most unforgiving, unpredictable classroom in the world. But it’s been making boys and girls into police officers for decades. It just works. 

And I’m not sure anything else would.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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