Are FTO Training Phases Obsolete?

Just a couple of weeks ago I was in Phoenix, (AZ) teaching a class to a group of experienced Field Training Officers and supervisors. During our discussion on how to build an effective field training program structure for your department we slowed down to have a side-bar conversation on the use of “Training Phases”.

Training phases are defined and applied differently depending on the agency you work for. However, the primary purpose of training phases for most of our departments is to help us gauge a new officer’s progress and improvement through the full training cycle.

Our discussion that day focused on one question. In a nut shell, I was asked how an FTO program or FTO supervisor can determine if a new officer is ready to graduate from one phase to another. My answer was a long one. To truly answer that question, we must understand that recognizing proficiency can be difficult. Understanding what meeting standards is in your department is essential. On top of that, that same understanding must be universally shared with each one of your FTOs. Now complicate the matter by asking those same FTO’s to not just determine a level of proficiency to graduate the program but also a different level of proficiency to graduate a training phase. It even makes my brain hurt!

So here is a summary of my answer to the class that day. First, let me ask you if the use of phases in your program is necessary? Since the use of true phases can generate confusion, I ask if that confusion is something you can avoid? One FTO supervisor in the room explained that her agency measures phases by quantity over quality. In other words, the new officers are expected to accomplish certain goals, complete certain tasks, or take certain tests to move from one phase to another. Versus meeting a certain standard in performance.

Like other agencies, their movement from one phase to another is marked by accomplishments and the transition from one FTO to another. Rather than performance.

Second, I asked if managing training phases for their agencies created liability? Universal understanding of your program’s Standard Evaluation Guidelines is essential to building a defensible program. The more complicated you make your program, and your SEGs, the harder it is for your FTOs to understand them. The use of phases with proficiency expectations to graduate means that each, and every FTO needs to recognize what level of proficiency the new officer needs to meet. Not just to graduate the program, but to graduate just that one phase. Some agencies use as many as three phases. You’ve now asked your FTOs to determine a student officer’s level of performance three times in one training cycle. Each time exposing the program to liability.

In Fadhl v. San Francisco, Officer Fadhl was released early. Without the opportunity to complete the full training cycle. This was only one element of the case, gender discrimination being the bigger issue. Nonetheless, the courts cited the early release as one factor behind their decision.

Lastly, I asked the class if the use of training phases was consistent with wat we know about adult learning philosophies?

Adults learn at different rates. Some adults are visual learners and some are auditory. Field training is centered around kinesthetic learning. Meaning that the primary learning style built into field training is rooted in experience. The more a new, adult police officer can experience, the more they will learn.

Malcolm Knowles is a highly recognized expert on contemporary adult learning philosophies. Knowles explains in his works that knowledge and experience are completely intertwined. He also encourages teachers to allow students to use their previous life experiences to help fully understand their new life circumstances or activities.

Using what we’ve learned from Malcolm Knowles, we realize that the critical experience a new officer needs to develop can be provided, or enhanced, with more time. This is what I call the “Light Bulb Moment”. When will the light bulb go on for your student officer? Week 3, week 12, phase 1 or phase 3? There’s no telling. That one experience, or the accumulation of experiences over time, may be the learning lesson the young officer needed to fully develop. It would be a shame if that officer was released from training before they had the opportunity to build the needed base of knowledge to succeed.

In summary, I would encourage FTO managers and supervisors to consider the actual and real need for hard-lined and defined training phases. The idea of graduating a phase may have grown obsolete as we’ve learned more about adult learning an improved teaching techniques. I’d encourage managers to consider transitions from one FTO to another to enhance training as well as defending against liability.

Introduce a system of goals and objectives to meet in phases rather than a level of proficiency. These few things can help us mark training milestones and map the course of development for our new officers. And at the end of the day, we understand that our training programs are always built for Success First.


Sgt. Dan Greene is a 20 year veteran of the Chandler Police Department in Arizona. Dan has been a certified LE Instructor since 1998 and has taught a variety of topics to include Ethics, Report Writing/Communication, Patrol Tactics and Leadership.  Dan has served both as an Executive Board Member of the National Association of Field Training Officers (NAFTO) and the Vice President of the NAFTO Arizona State Chapter. In 2017, Dan was honored to be recognized as the ILEETA Trainer of the Year.

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