A New Strategy for Training Police Officers — the PTO Program

image of blooms taxonomy diagramIn 2000, the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ), Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) collaborated to pilot an innovative post-police academy training strategy with the Reno, Nevada Police Department. This problem-based learning strategy, titled the Police Training Officer (PTO) Program, combined adult learning theory and problem solving tools into a process that encouraged new officers to think proactively, helping them identify solutions to problems within their communities.

This approach created a paradigm shift from reactive to proactive law enforcement. The PTO model provides the opportunity for officers to internalize the concepts involved in police work, retain and apply knowledge learned in the academy, and test and discover local best practices and problem solving techniques, as well as implement tactical enforcement strategies. The shift involved moving from the traditional, historically innovative, post-academy field training experience, which measured the new officer’s skills against a set of performance guidelines, to a contemporary, problem based learning strategy. The PTO model is based upon problem solving learning and adult teaching strategies at the post-academy experience.

This approach was conceptualized and developed by the COPS Office in an effort to create a post-academy experience compatible with the principles of community policing and problem solving. Based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, the PTO program places an emphasis on the type of learning processes involved when teaching police officers and members of the community to serve as partners in innovative problem solving. “When you teach people how to learn, they become more resourceful,” said Deputy Chief Ron Glensor, Reno Police Department, Ret. These learning processes can be easily tailored to the unique needs of police organizations and the communities they serve. (More information can be referenced at www.cops.usdoj.gov.)

Following the completion of the PTO program design in 2000, the COPS Office successfully piloted the PTO model in six major police departments: Reno, Nevada; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Savanna, Georgia; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Lowell, Massachusetts; and Richmond, California. The COPS Office determined that since the pilots in 2000, it was appropriate to document the national use of the PTO program.

In 2008, the COPS Office awarded a grant to the University of Illinois Center for Public Safety and Justice to conduct research to determine the level of understanding about, and use of, the Police Training Officer Program by law enforcement agencies across the country. The project would also identify the obstacles that prohibit the use of problem based learning and the implementation of the PTO model within police organizations. As best practices are developed with PTO programs across the country, they too would be captured during data collection.

image of chart of interest in learning more about the pto program

image of chart of who uses a PTO and FTO program

image of chart of participants who would benefit from implementing a PTO program


Data Collection Strategies
Several data collection strategies are being used to make this contemporary assessment. Strong university-based partnerships were forged during the development and administration of the project. They are referenced within this article so that interested readers might use them as resources for existing PTO programs or to assist in making the determination of whether or not to implement the PTO policing strategy.

Mid-way through the two-year research project, preliminary findings reveal a number of significant trends. (Refer to the Graphical Analysis of PTO Survey Results.) Respondents indicated:

  • A lack of awareness about the PTO post-academy training strategy, but were very interested in more information;
  • A lack of understanding about the differences between PTO and Field Training Officer Program (FTO), which contributed to no plans to implement PTO;
  • The perception that the PTO program involved too much paperwork;
  • A concern that PTO orchestrated too much autonomy for new officers; and,
  • The desire to implement problem based learning in other parts of the organization.

Barriers and misperceptions, successes, and best practices were reiterated during a focus group workshop administered by the Kentucky Regional Community Policing Institute (RCPI) at the Southern Police Institute in collaboration with the University of Illinois. Based on the survey, telephone, and focus group data, the Kentucky RCPI is developing the PTO Academy to assist organizations in meeting training and implementation needs.

Strengths, successes, and best practices:

  • Recruits’ knowledge, independent thinking, and problem solving skills showed dramatic increase;
  • New officers are better able to handle the complexities of the job;
  • PTO trainers are able to engage with the recruits in a positive, constructive manner rather than focusing exclusively on corrective behavior;
  • Issues requiring the termination of officers are identified earlier;
  • Many new officers self-terminate; and,
  • The PTO program is a community based strategy that encourages new officers to maintain an open mind and use creativity in an attempt to solve problems and develop viable solutions to problems and issues within the community.

Obstacles and misperceptions:

  • Difficulty in locating PTO training for staff;
  • Viewing the program as a less-disciplined way of training new officers;
  • Foreign terminology;
  • Budget constraints;
  • Viewed as an insult to the existing FTO training and training officers;
  • A less structured, problem based learning style format which gave the trainee too much freedom over the training experience;
  • Ignorance about the program; and,
  • An overall resistance to change.

The National PTO Model
The National PTO model is regarded positively by responding police command and staff, and sticking to its philosophy was touted as important for success of the program within their organizations. Using the core aspects of the prescribed model makes local use possible without corrupting the essence and characteristics that make the program uniquely effective. Making changes to various elements (i.e., journaling strategies or placement of the integration week, etc.) allows the organization to more easily implement the PTO model within their organization’s administrative and enforcement processes and culture. However, it was stressed that any attempt to simultaneously administer the PTO and more traditional field training officer’s programs is ill-advised.

The Community Policing Influence
The PTO program reinforces and promotes the values and concepts fundamental to community policing: problem solving and decision making; creative thinking; and organizational change. Community policing and the PTO program teach officers to be resourceful and to positively engage with members of the community, encouraging all to be advocates of police services. To achieve these results, the PTO program models officer-responsibility as a main-stay of community-involved, community policing. The PTO concepts also empower the officer to use the basics of community policing within the organization, thus moving the organization forward; producing the ideal community policing vision while law enforcement professionals carry out the mission. The resulting organizational change facilitates an enhanced relationship and communication within the community. Communication builds partnerships that assist law enforcement in the gathering of intelligence and proactive policing. Louisville police officers report that the PTO–community policing approach enables them “to go out to the public, talk to them, establish relationships.” The collaborative relationships with members of the community facilitate the identification and solutions to problems. The interweaving of PTO and community policing instill strategies that make communities a safe environment in which to live, work, and play.

Conclusions to Date
The research project at the University of Illinois Center for Public Safety and Justice and the creation of the National PTO Academy at the Kentucky RCPI, Southern Police Institute has months to go before finishing. However, whether data was collected using the survey instrument, follow-up calls, or from focus group participants, several themes stand out:

  • New officers were better able to think creatively, act autonomously, and solve problems within their communities.
  • New officers were empowered and demonstrated confidence immediately upon release from the PTO post-academy program.
  • Officers frequently completed their duties—going beyond the basics to follow-up with members of the community to continue a dialogue, identify and solve problems proactively—instilling community confidence in their local police department.
  • There was a higher level of port-academy retention of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) as KSAs were internalized and instilled into long-term memory.
  • Officers were empowered to ask questions and search for non-traditional solutions knowing they have the latitude to do so.
  • PTO post-academy training turned out to serve as good leadership training.

While the migration from a traditional, post-academy retaining program to the PTO strategy takes time and much concentrated effort, the outcomes are significant. Analysis of survey results indicate a high level of interest in and support of this PTO program initiative; however, the need for clarification and explanations on the PTO program and implementation also emerged as an evident theme. Cindy Shain, Director of the Kentucky RCPI and Associate Director of the Southern Police Institute, states, “The PTO initiative will facilitate the building of a foundation for life-long learning that prepares new officers for the complexities of policing in our ever-evolving society. Ultimately, the PTO program will result in better police services and community perception of their local law enforcement agencies.”

-Dr. Patricia S. Rushing
Center for Public Safety and Justice
Institute of Government and Public Affairs
University of Illinois

Excerpts reprinted with permission from The CALEA Update Magazine (Issue 102, February 2010) – A New Training Strategy for Training Police Officers – the PTO Program.  For More Information on the Police Training Officer Program you can visit the COPS website or contact:

Dr. Patricia S. Rushing
Center for Public Safety & Justice
Institute of Government & Public Affairs

University of Illinois
2930 Montvale Drive, Suite B
Springfield, Il 62704


Cindy Shain, Associate Director
Southern Police Institute
Department of Justice Administration
University of Louisville
Louisville, KY 40292


Back to top

Dispatch Home | COPS Grant Announcements | See COPS at IACP | I See You: Iris Innovation | Tribal Police Cars | A Look at PTO | Ask a GPS