The other day I was enjoying the rerun of a classic movie "Animal House" (1978) and had to compare this to policework. No department has the secretive induction ceremonies seen in movie fraternities. So how do we welcome our youngest into the fold, and whose responsibility is this?
Working in law enforcement resembles membership in a fraternity or sorority. We train ourselves to speak of honor and the brotherhood or sisterhood of the badge. We offer the support of the group to its members when they are in harms way. We have our own language to carry on our business away from the uninitiated. We have rituals such as promotion parties and ceremonies. I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the various rituals of our funerals and memorials. Our uniform carries our symbols—the shield, patches and pins. Our philosophy or dogma is set in the academy and instilled by our training and codes of conduct.
The guardian of these sacred values is the Field Training Officer (FTO). He or she is the one that stands as the guardian at the gates leading to Copland. The FTO is the link from the academy to the realities and harshness of real-life applications. They oversee how you apply all of the principles you've been taught and determine whether you're worthy of carrying on the burden of these to the next generation.
To me, the FTO has to ensure that you are what the background investigation, testing and selection process showed you would be. Is the recruit worthy of the values they're ready to impart? Furthermore, do you have the mettle to absorb and maintain throughout your career?
The FTO will be one to set your professional and moral compass. They'll give you the bearings to navigate the troublesome waters of a career path. As one old retired FTO told me once, despite being retired, he scans the evening news and papers for his former recruits still on the job. Many of them have been on the job 20 years, and he still reviews and scrutinizes their actions. I asked him why and he replied, "I taught them right, just checking to see if they remembered everything I told them." He was a guardian at the gate!
I've said thousands of times that the FTO cadre of your department sets the pathway for the department's future. Granted, the young will muddle through, and in a few years these are the candidates for detective, sergeant, instructor school, and FTO. If they were marginal at the beginning and allowed to slip by then what will their performance be like in more lofty positions of power?
Then again, do you want the marginal to be the ones standing as the guardians at the gate in the future? The answer is obvious; you want the finest to be the FTO of today to ensure future departmental excellence. I also want the finest FTO to ensure that the values I cherish in this vocation are maintained.
Do yourself a favor, and thank your FTO for all they taught you. If you're a FTO never, ever shortchange your recruit. Be their life coach. When they survive, know it was because of your training. Be that guardian at the gate.