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Becoming a Police Officer: The Academy Experience (page 2)

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Updated on Dec 2, 2010

Field Training

Field training developed later than academy training. Until the 1970s it was, if it existed at all, an informal system in which rookie officers were assigned to work with more experienced officers. Often for no more than a few days, the new officer mostly learned the geographic area and watched how the more experienced officer dealt with members of the public in a variety of situations. The experienced officer was often not selected on the basis of being an appropriate role model. Working the same days and hours as the new officer was many times the major selection criterion.

As with many changes in police training and accountability, a more organized style of field training developed in California, specifically the San Jose Police Department. Begun in 1972, this has remained the most widely recognized and imitated field training program. Although it seemed revolutionary at the time, the San Jose model basically formalized having a new officer observe a more experienced one by selecting field training officers on the basis of their abilities, rather than their availability, and having the training officer formally evaluate the recruit-trainee on a number of specific tasks.

From this sprang a number of variations and a training specialty of field training officer (FTO). Today many field training programs require the recruit-trainee to work with a number of different FTOs. To ensure that the officer is exposed to different styles of policing the trainee may be moved through different areas of the city. There may be considerable disruption to your personal life, since you will be expected to work days and nights, weekdays and weekends, all with the aim of exposing you to different experiences early in your career. In some programs, the evaluation of the trainer may play a role in whether you pass a prestated probationary period and are permitted to remain employed as an officer. Shifting a rookie officer to a number of trainers prevents personality conflicts or intangible dislikes from having too great an influence on a young officer's career. This is a real concern of agencies; the San Jose program was developed in part in response to a sex discrimination suit by female officers, who allegated that they were being judged on criteria other than their abilities as police officers.

Generally, the more formal a field training program, the longer it will last. Simply patrolling with a more experienced officer may go on for only a week or two. The current San Jose program continues for 14 weeks and includes periods of patrolling with periods of instruction and a predetermined rotation pattern. Most programs fall somewhere between these parameters.

The final step before becoming a full-fledged member of a law enforcement agency is completion of the probation period. Although not directly a training phase, a probationary period may last up to two-years, depending on state civil service law or on the department's negotiated union contract. The average probation period in police departments is one year and it may or may not include the time spent in academy training. Whatever the time frame, during this period an officer may be fired without a hearing without cause, a legalistic way of saying for any reason.

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