What to Expect from Your FTO

Policing isn't like eHarmony.com. Recruits and field training officers won't be matched based on 29 personality dimensions guaranteed to predict long-term relationship success.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Policing ain't eHarmony.com. You won't be matched with someone based on 29 personality dimensions guaranteed to predict long-term relationship success. The larger the law enforcement agency, the less likely it is that you will know much about your training officer prior to coming face-to-face with him or her.

Nonetheless, as you start your patrol career, you'll probably enter this mentoring relationship with some expectations as well as some anxiety.

My own experience as a rookie on patrol training was about as schizoid as they come. Heavily influenced by "Adam-12" reruns on TV, my expectations of training were largely unrealistic. My first field training officer was laid back, pretty much living up to my pre-patrol fantasies.

My second FTO...well, let's just say he was a little more mercurial.

In the time it would take for him to secure his sidearm in the booking cage gun locker, his mood could change from light to dark. Patience flew out the window and tact was an afterthought. It wasn't unusual for us to get into shouting matches with one another. I'd often drive home late at night, beating the hell out of my steering wheel and swearing that I didn't need to and wouldn't take his crap anymore. I could always go back to working custody.

But the next day I went back to work.

In retrospect, my first FTO didn't do me any favors by taking it easy on me. When all was said and done, I learned a hell of a lot more from my second FTO-a man I initially hated, but eventually came to love.

Still, it begs the question: If my expectations were antiquated when I entered patrol, what can you reasonably expect of your training officer in this day and age?

First Impressions Can Prove Fateful

Even if your training officer doesn't expect a good first impression of you, he is going to want one. What you may not know is that impression may be made long before he ever meets you.

Cops are accustomed to snooping, and you can bet that your FTO will probably check into your background. And even if he doesn't go looking, it isn't unusual for academy staff members, I work for my staff. They don't work for me. They work as a team for the organization as a whole, and serve the community with honor, integrity, and distinction.co-workers, and supervisors from prior assignments to initiate calls to field training staff to let them know who's going to occupy their passenger seat.

With this in mind, it makes sense to not make enemies any more than necessary and to keep your nose clean long before you ever hit the streets. Remember that maintaining a good posture, a calm and professional demeanor, and impeccable uniform appearance go a long way toward developing a good reputation.

She is Going to Test You...Daily

They say to never con a con, and the same may be said of your training officer. You can anticipate that however good an impression you make, your training officer is going to do her best to see that there's some substance behind the façade.

Your FTO will want you to be up to snuff on those things that you're expected to know before you open that passenger side door. She expects to train you how to do the job, how to put the policies and procedures you've already been exposed to into action. But she has no desire to teach you those policies and procedures; you should already know them.

To this end, make darn sure that you know as many of the basics as possible. Practice your radio codes on the drive to and from work and while you're out running errands. Consider calling imaginary pursuits or coordinating radio traffic, as well. If you're watching a crime drama, think about all of the applicable statutes that are being broken. It'll help condition you to think how many charges a suspect might actually face when you confront him in the field.

But no matter how much you prepare, you will be challenged, and you can anticipate that your training officer will put you in sink or swim situations. This can make for some tricky situations. You don't want to come across as cocky, but you can't afford to be indecisive. Give serious consideration to whatever situation you're handling and let common sense be your guide. Once you've arrived at a game plan-be it arrest, counseling, or somehow brokering a peace-run it by your training officer.

Throughout your field training, you will encounter no shortage of documentation, both on your part (crime reports), and hers (daily and supplemental observation reports, weekly and phase summary reports). It comes with the territory. Don't be intimidated by them.

Room for Improvement

No matter how squared away you are, you can anticipate being given goals for improvement.

"The key expectation is that you'll be treated fairly," says Mike Siegfried, a sergeant with the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department. "But you should also expect to be honestly critiqued. You might be a great report writer, but that doesn't mean that you're going to be familiar with all the different forms that come with the job. That takes exposure."

Siegfried says that one thing trainees fail to anticipate is that their training officers expect them to ask questions. Just make sure the questions are intelligently presented and in a forum where a candid reply can be reasonably expected.

"So many trainees won't ask pertinent questions for fear of exposing their ignorance," notes Siegfried. But questions may also be the only means of resolving lingering concerns that you may have.

"Let's say that you find your training officer displaying excellent tactical communications skills during the first five citizen contacts that the two of you have, then suddenly he becomes terse or borderline confrontational with the sixth," says Siegfried. "You notice this, but you don't know why. Is it because of a history between the two of them? Or maybe your FTO's wife had called with some bad news about their mortgage. Worse, perhaps something you did irritated him. It's perfectly legitimate to say something to him about the matter: 'Sir, I noticed that there was a different dynamic during that last stop. Do you mind if I ask why?'"

As incongruous as it sounds, changing dynamics are perhaps the most consistent aspect of the job, and if your training officer is conscientious about doing his job, he will expose you to as many varied situations as quickly as possible. To this end, he might pull over dozens of cars during a shift, or "buy calls," taking the handle on incidents that were initially assigned to another unit. Hopefully, he will temper this desire with common sense and not bury you to the point that you become overwhelmed.

The Training Officer of Your Dreams? Or the FTO from Hell?

Training officers come from the same resource pool as did you and your fellow cadets. They certainly reflect the same broad range of personalities. This is the X factor in the equation. I have seen some exceptional training officers over the years; I have also seen some who were not fit to shine their trainee's shoes. This latter group was usually responsible for the typical training horror stories.

Dwight Miley is a drill instructor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and recognizable as the ramrod from the Fox television series "The Academy." He has seen hundreds of cadets graduate from the academy, many of whom have the same concerns about what their patrol training experience will be like.

"One of the biggest fears is that their FTO isn't going to allow them to eat during their shift. Or that they'll be thrown in the back seat, or worse, the trunk," says Miley. "They are concerned about whether or not they'll get paid for overtime. Some are even worried that if they screw up, their training officer will have them book themselves at the station for 'impersonating a police officer.'"

Historically, much of the hazing inflicted by training officers was payback for what they'd gone through...and downpayment for what would still be inflicted upon others. Some of this is perhaps predictable given the paramilitary influences of the profession.

Miley says the good news is that you can expect a different attitude today than was more common 30 or 40 years ago. Hazing, while perhaps still practiced, is nowhere as prevalent or as extreme as it once was.

To counter such threats, many departments are moving away from the paramilitary structure. In academy and patrol training, they attempt to counter overt hostility without sacrificing discipline.

Mike Carmazzi, a training officer with the Nevada Peace Officer Standards of Training program, notes that law enforcement has not been immune to its share of over-the-top training officers who put an inordinate amount of stress upon their trainees.

"No way do I want to have officers treating the public in that kind of officious manner," says Carmazzi, who finds such behavior counterproductive on all fronts. To that end, his academy encourages discipline without belittling.

George Cooley, an Alabama POST Director of Regional Training in Tuscaloosa, echoes Carmazzi's concerns.

"Our generation wasn't taught the right way. It was very military. We were yelled at, first for not moving, then for not moving fast enough. Such conditioning could inhibit us from making quick decisions and acting on them when we need to. It instills one of two kinds of responses, the first being a 'wait around' one wherein the officer has grown accustomed to having someone else take them by the nose and tell them what to do, or they go to the other extreme and being overbearing hard chargers.

"We want them to be proactive, to think," notes Cooley. "More importantly, we want them to act on what they think the correct action is to take. Too many cops have learned the same lesson: They don't get in trouble for doing nothing-they get in trouble for doing something. We're trying to change that mindset."

Many training academies have adopted similar training models to Nevada and Alabama's POST academies. If your state is one of them, you may reasonably expect a training experience that, while disciplined and rigorous, is not demeaning.

Turn Your Focus Inward

The best rule of thumb is to give your training officer the benefit of the doubt. Assume that he has your best interests in mind and sincerely wants you to succeed. Moreover, understand that he has a vested interest in your success.

For not only will the two of you depend on one another in a variety of situations, but you will ultimately be a reflection of his success or failure as a training officer. And whereas your relationship with your academy drill instructor was shared with a number of fellow cadets, there will be no such diffusion of attention when it comes to your training officer. You'll work together in a much more intimate environment and you will be the singular focus of his attention. As such, you may feel that you are living and working under the microscope. In a sense, you are.

Everything you say and do-and fail to do-will be constantly monitored and evaluated. Also, unlike when you are in the academy and expected to be somewhat ignorant when it comes to the nuances of law enforcement, the fact that you have graduated from the academy carries with it the expectation that you have established the requisite work foundation with which to be mentored and built upon.

Training officers will always have their own ways of educating the men and women who work with them, and no matter how arduously an agency works to eliminate hazing, there will always be horror stories of trainees who discover that their training officers hid their gear bags or evidence to teach them a lesson. But some lessons are invaluable and as Mark Twain noted, "The boy who carries a cat around by its tail learns a lesson that can be taught in no other way."

So when asking yourself what you might expect of your training officer, just remember to ask yourself, What can your training officer expect of you?

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