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How to Select and Train FTOs

Training officers build an agency one cop at a time, making them the most important cops on the force.

January 01, 2005  |  by - Also by this author

Patrol training is the obligatory stepping stone to street work for many a new cop. It is weeks (or months in remedial cases) of short meals, long nights, and court in the morning. And this time spent with a veteran field training officer (FTO) can result in some of the most curious pairings of individuals since Pat Boone married himself to heavy metal. Still, this mentoring process is critical to the development of new officers.

A good recipe for an FTO would be to mix portions of Sheriff Buford Pusser from “Walking Tall,” Sherlock Holmes, and Officer Pete Malloy from “Adam-12.” It would then tell you to bake them together and frost them with a glaze of the patient bemusement and gentle common sense of Andy Griffith’s Sheriff Andy Taylor.

An FTO’s hypnotic influence on impressionable trainees, and therefore his or her influence on the future of American law enforcement, is difficult to overstate. A study cited by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that “90 percent of the officers interviewed identified their field training officers as the most significant influence on their patrol techniques.” And the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) asserts that field training officers “are the most important link in developing a strong ethical foundation and culture within a police organization.”

More than mere mentors, more than just role models, training officers are ultimately what their trainees will measure themselves against throughout their patrol careers. For while the academy should have theoretically created a foundation for the rookie officer to build upon, it is the training officer who will ultimately help to shape a raw rookie into a cop.

The fiscal impact on agencies that failed to have training programs in place is testimonial enough as to the import of FTOs. And a program that is more show than go is only slightly better than no program.

Developing a Message

But how do you know when a program is solid? A field training program may appear adequate on paper, but if the training that officers actually receive is inadequate, it is no better than if the training program didn’t exist at all. Simply, the issue is not that officers receive training, but how effective that training is. Ensuring a good training program means developing the message an agency wants conveyed and choosing the right messenger.

Training starts with curriculum. This means that agencies must identify those areas that demand an officer’s proficiency and develop a reasonable timetable that will accommodate the trainee’s exposure to such areas, as well as allow the trainee opportunities to develop the requisite skills.

Next comes the development of a clearly defined training program that safeguards the interests of the trainee, the employing agency, and the community they serve.

Who Trains Trainees

Perhaps the most important aspect of any patrol training program is the selection of a cadre of qualified training officers. Fostering an environment wherein good prospects for training officers are readily identified and selected can itself be a challenge.

Bureaucracy and politics can open the door to lesser prospects while excluding more qualified personnel. Also the prerequisite of FTO experience for promotions or transfers can result in floods of applicants who have little or no inclination toward training new cops and who just need to get their tickets punched. Any one of these realities can hamstring the agency’s mission of producing well-trained street cops.

The road to becoming an FTO varies from agency to agency. For example, the San Diego Police Department requires a minimum of three years of patrol experience. Prospective FTOs are also subject to written and oral exams. In addition, selected San Diego PD training officers also attend a 40-hour POST FTO training course before attending a weeklong in-house course.

Training Programs

When it comes to training the training officers, the guild system still plays an important part. But many agencies send their training officers to get trained, as well. Many agencies have formal field training officer programs; both the Bloomington (Ind.) and the Indiana University Police Departments even have their FTO manuals available online.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department have for years had field training officer academies with additional refresher courses. Other large agencies often rotate responsibilities for hosting FTO academies with one another.

For those agencies that do not have in-house training programs, other academy-quality training programs are available through privately held law enforcement training companies throughout the United States, many of which have a customer-friendly, “we come to you” approach.

The largest such agency is the Public Agency Training Council (PATC). “We encourage a one-on-one system that is professional, but is not ‘buddy-buddy,’” says James “Jim” Currie, a former captain with the South Carolina Department of Public Safety who is in charge of PATC’s 40-hour FTO training course. “We want FTOs who are ethical and who role-model the kinds of qualities their agencies want to see eventually manifest in their new recruits,” Currie says.

Ethical Guidance

Finding an ideal training officer means finding someone with the requisite experience to evaluate successful candidates who also possesses the stamina to keep up with eager-beaver trainees. IACP notes that “FTOs must be schooled in the adult learning process so they are equipped to assist their trainees in learning to behave ethically.”

Stamina, educational instincts, and desire are great attributes in an FTO. But the most critical personality characteristics that an FTO must possess are absolute honesty, a strong work ethic, and a strong moral code. They also must have an awareness of their impact on their charges. As IACP advises, “FTOs must understand the critical position they fill…more than any level within a police organization, the very finest, most ethical employees must be recruited and retained as FTOs.”

PATC’s Currie finds such qualities imperative. “You need a field training officer who meets and exceeds all the standards that are placed on the recruit. How can you expect a reasonable evaluation of the recruit otherwise?”

Care of FTOs

Currie says that agencies should expect a lot from their FTOs, but they should also know where to draw the line. “You need to take care of your training officers. Collateral responsibilities, such as court appearances and the preparation of trainee evaluations, can cause even the best of training officers to suffer burnout,” he explains.

“Agencies by and large get what they pay for,” Currie notes. “If you dump the expectation of being an FTO on an already over-burdened patrol officer without giving him some reward—be it a promotion or incentive pay—you undermine the very process you’re trying to foster. Safeguarding against overloading the best and the brightest and not overlooking their efforts can ensure good morale and a quality turnover of new mentors and produce the desired result: a well-trained officer.”

Hazing and Discipline

Even in the most positive work environment, it’s up to the training officer himself to measure up. The FTO should embody the attributes his employing agency wants to see in its future officers.

Not that such attributes have always been so manifest. Stories still make the rounds of a time when trainees were routinely ridiculed, made to lie in the trunks of patrol cars during tours of duty so as to be “out of sight, out of mind.” Such hazing was often payback for the indignities the training officer himself had suffered, and down payment for those the trainee would later inflict on still others. Such were the hazards of working within guild confines.

Hazing is now by and large a thing of the past. But some veteran officers feel that discipline has been a collateral casualty. They say that some trainees still deserve a figurative swift kick to jumpstart their brains. Also some veteran FTOs feel they receive an unfair stigma of being a “hatchet man” once one too many problematic trainees have been let go.

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