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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

A Two-Way Street

If retaining bad trainees is bad, the situation is worsened by the retention of bad training officers. Andre BeLotto, who works out of LAPD’s Pacific Division, notes that some training officers should remove themselves from the process, but don’t.

“Quite simply, you have some FTOs who haven’t ‘been there, done that.’ Suddenly, they are obligated to mentor and supervise others when they are not as up on things as they should be. You end up with a dangerous perpetuation of ignorance,” BeLotto says.

While an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, BeLotto believes that it is never too late to rectify a wrong. “We need to be pulling more stripes off these individuals. We need to make the reevaluation of some of these FTOs a greater priority. They need to be under greater scrutiny, especially since some are just taking up spots that better, more knowledgeable candidates are being deprived of.

“Unfortunately, many in the system are overly cautious about removing stripes for fear of getting sued. We need to get back to the basics. Just as we allow objective documentation to determine the fate of the trainee, so too should the FTO status be determined by his performance,” BeLotto says.

To stay on top of things, some in the LAPD are contemplating the resurrection of a past policy that waived FTO testing requirements for those with 10 years of patrol experience. Their argument is summed up by BeLotto in a single question, “Why arbitrarily exclude a candidate who might not be the greatest test taker but might have a lot of street experience?”

BeLotto says the street experience of veteran officers can save a lot of in-house grief. Beyond being a mentor, the  training officer can also be the last line of defense for a department that has an employee who has been surviving on stealth and flying below radar. Many should not have been hired in the first place.

Last Line of Defense

With police agencies competing with one another for the cream of the crop, the “also-ran” candidates inevitably gravitate somewhere. The training officer stands to identify and correct a negligent retention matter before it comes to a head.

FTO is not an easy job. It requires a great deal of patience and understanding. There are trainees who will learn no matter what, who intuitively, instinctively, and intellectually know how to enforce the law and stay alive. But there are others who—for whatever reason—have a more difficult time grasping everything from radio communication and call coordination to penal codes and case laws. The thing a good FTO must remember is that sometimes slow-learning law enforcement trainees eventually become great officers once their lights switch on.

Jerrilove Crockett is the sergeant in charge of San Diego Police Department’s FTO program. She’s seen all types of trainees and she believes that offering the trainee a broad exposure to different patrol areas and training officers results in a more rounded training experience.

“We have a four-phase training program wherein the trainee works four different divisions with four different FTOs,” Crockett explains. “Each phase lasts for one month. If they fail a training phase throughout the 16-week course, they can get up to eight additional weeks of training to bring them up to par. But once a trainee has proven himself incapable of doing the job, then it is the responsibility of the chief and command staff to support the consensus conclusions of the FTOs. Fortunately, we have a strong support staff.”

The Process

Rotating a trainee among multiple FTOs as they do at the San Diego PD is a great luxury. Not only does it expose them to different approaches, it also safeguards against collusion between training officers who might have an agenda other than seeing that a trainee successfully conclude his or her training.

But even if you don’t have the resources of a major agency, there are some things you can take from their patrol training programs and apply to your agency.

For example, many high-volume FTO programs emphasize that the most important skill that a training officer can impart to his or her trainee is resourcefulness. Rapid changes in law, technology, and social mores preclude the likelihood that a trainee will develop the requisite exposure to all the vagaries of the job during his or her patrol training. But if a trainee learns how to be flexible, how to improvise, and how to solve problems on the fly, then he or she is ready to face the challenges of the street.
Tapping these innate resources means challenging the rookie. Raising the bar may mean ratcheting up the pressure. The rookie needs to be receptive to information, able to retain it and, most importantly, able to summon the knowledge when working under pressure.

While the subject of training can be situationally dependent, a good training officer will make the most of down time—those periods when nothing is happening and no one is on the street. Such time can be used for contemplating “what if” scenarios and catching up with case laws. It can also be used for driving around the area, identifying where the bad players live and hang out, and practicing coordination of imaginary containments. A good training officer takes notes on the trainee’s performance throughout the course of his or her shift.  A better training officer lets the trainee know this up front.

Establishing a working relationship that commands respect even as it encourages a dialogue is important. There’s a balancing act between the training officer and the trainee. Ideally, they complement one another, with the trainee possessing the requisite skills and interest so as to allow his or her training officer something to work with, and the training officer the patience and professionalism needed to build upon these attributes.

The bottom line is that training officers are the people who are most responsible for the future of American law enforcement, and their role must be respected and celebrated. As San Diego PD’s Crockett says, “Everyone loves the specialized assignments—aero, K-9, homicide—but the most valuable player [on a department is] the training officer. Without their creating the requisite work foundation for their trainees to build upon, you wouldn’t have quality people matriculating to such bureaus.”

Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a frequent contributor to Police.

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