Field training programs have been a successful part of training new officers in many police agencies for more than 40 years. But, how does the model work for training and evaluating officers with prior experience?
Trainers know that adults learn differently and have different learning goals than younger students. Do experience officers transferring from another agency have different goals and learning styles than the rookie fresh out of the academy? My experience suggests they do.
So, are the traditional field training systems doing a disservice to the lateral officer and his or her department? Perhaps.
The Experienced Cop
Fundamentally, the “job” is the same wherever you may work. The hardest thing to teach a rookie police officer is how to deal with people in a professional and safe manner. Many programs are geared to push the new officer into a lot of contact situations in an effort to develop these skills.
However, most lateral transfers already know how to interact with people. Generally, a lateral police officer’s safety skills and ability to establish rapport or to spot deception are good. Certainly, they should be better than a rookie officer fresh out of the academy.
An experienced officer may have a resistance to being taught the basics. I’ve found the best way to overcome this is to simply acknowledge their experience upfront and explain that you have to conduct the training and evaluation to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Push the responsibility of the mandatory training onto the organization so you can effectively work with the experienced recruit.
Another thing to consider is that the experienced officer will be less tolerant of public humiliation. He or she comes in with the same need to establish their credibility with the other officers. But, everyone expects an experienced cop to fit in much more quickly. So be cautious about sharing stories – even good-natured ones – about a mixup or failure on a call.
Embarrassing a rookie officer is likely to create resentment. For an experienced trainee, I daresay the likelihood of resentment is much, much greater.
For an officer with more than two years of experience, I found that much of the training should focus on the policies and procedures. The officer will have to overcome all of the procedures that have been second nature to him or her for years. So, instead of working with a clean slate, the FTO will have to erase the old stuff and then teach the new.
Spend a little less time chasing down the hot calls and a little more time with bringing the officer up to speed on your agency’s evidence procedures, report writing requirements and criminal law. An officer from a neighboring jurisdiction may not need as much help in these areas as an officer that comes from a department in another state.
An experienced officer may be unlikely to ask a lot of questions about the new department’s procedures for fear of developing a poor reputation. Therefore, the FTO must probe for the officer’s weaknesses and make sure the appropriate training is done.
Officer Safety Issues
An emphasis on policies and procedures does not mean that the program should ignore training and evaluating the officer in critical areas such as officer safety and investigative skills. Quite the contrary.
You should seek out some of the hot calls to ensure your experienced recruit appropriately responds to hostile confrontations and uses force within the confines of the law. If the officer shows weaknesses in any officer safety or use of force areas, work on those like you would with a fresh-from-the-academy rookie.
Again, keep in mind that the officer has a keen desire to avoid embarrassment. When he or she makes a mistake, don’t share it with anyone that doesn’t need to know. Document it, of course, but don’t bring it up at the next roll call.
We have all known an officer that would do more harm than good when they show up on your call. The last thing you want to do is hire “that guy” and not catch it in the field training when they can still be retrained or weeded out. But, I believe these types of officers will be readily apparent, and the focus of the program should be on the policies and procedures for most lateral hires.
David Lemmer of the Deerfield, IL Police Department wrote an excellent article on his agency’s experience with field training lateral entry officers. (update: The article has since been taken offline. If I can find another copy, I will link to it.)
Overall, Lemmer writes that his department’s experiences were positive but they did discover several pitfalls. For example, Lemmer notes that lateral hires are often resistant to changing to new policies and procedures. He states that the resistance to change is proportional to the number of years of experience the lateral hire has.
Although the number of experienced officers I have trained is far less than the entire Deerfield Police Department, I find Lemmer’s statement accurate. That is one of the reasons why I emphasized training lateral hires in policies and procedures.
Lemmer also said that hiring an officer with more experience than the FTOs can also present a problem. While, ultimately, the extensive experience of the new officer will benefit the department, it can make an odd dynamic in the FTO-trainee relationship. This may hinder the FTO from adequately instructing or evaluating the new hire.
As Lemmer indicates in his work, lateral hires are a valuable resource for departments. They offer upfront savings in training money and time. More importantly, they bring “instant experience” to the department and can immediately begin to contribute at the same level it might normally take a recruit several years to reach.
An experienced officer can bring a lot of benefit to the hiring agency. I’ve seen new officers come in and bring fresh ideas with the voice of experience to positively change a department. Likewise, I’ve seen other experienced officers come in and pick at the policies of a department with a net negative affect.
It is my belief that the field training program is an ideal spot to help shape the experienced officer’s contributions into a positive force within the department. It just requires effort on the part of those in the program to ensure that happens.