From the Docs

Roles of a Field Training Officer: Getting the Most Out of Your Trainee

As an industrial/organizational consultant, I have had the opportunity to work in many areas of our Department. Our patrol stations are among the most complex and dynamic environments I have provided consultation. Stations are often referred to as the foundation of law enforcement operations. For a consultant, navigating the hub of activity in this setting can be both challenging and rewarding, as opportunities for change and growth present frequently. Patrol is commonly seen as an environment where lessons are learned, bonds are forged and core competencies are built. Many deputies can recall the pivotal experiences they had in their patrol years, regardless of the assignments they transition to in later phases of their careers.

Patrol is also the setting where perhaps one of the most important career relationships, that between field training officer and trainee, occurs. Having spent time with FTOs, I am aware of the varied perspectives and approaches taken to training. Being an FTO is certainly not easy. It requires long hours, leadership capacity, exceptional patience, superior attention to detail, above-average communication skills and many other abilities. So, why sign up for the job? The folks I have asked describe pride in the role, as well as a strong sense of commitment to their peers, station and the Department. For those of you currently doing the job, or aspiring to it, here’s an overview of some of the roles an FTO has to juggle and how to get the most out of a trainee in any environment.

  • Setting the tone: Liken your role to that of a coach. John Wooden (aka the Wizard of Westwood) knew that sound fundamentals are the key to everything else. He encouraged his players to know, understand and master the basics before they took the floor. It’s essential that you know where your trainee is in terms of the basics. Although it’s preferable that the trainee engage in some preparation prior to going out (doing station rides, learning reporting districts, having an understanding of basic radio codes, etc.), it may put the training relationship at a disadvantage if you assume that they know these things from the start.
  • Role model: Show how you blend tactics and good people skills. Actions speak louder than words (actions are more important, because we tend to favor behavior). In order to really drive it home, your actions and words must match, so what you tell them to do has to be on par with what you’re doing. Remember that in the present day, career survival involves being able to balance officer safety and maintain a tactical advantage with the use of verbal de-escalation skills — make sure that you’re modeling both for your trainee.
  • Trainer: Value strong fundamentals. Don’t leave out little steps. Even though it may not be the popular approach, spending time with your trainee ensuring that they understand procedural steps of a basic operation provides successive shaping (taking a series of steps to develop desired behavior), and enables him/her to strengthen associations between steps. Both of these will lead to mastery of material.
  • Evaluator: little by little, early on. If possible, don’t opt for the strong silent approach. Frequent evaluation of strengths and weaknesses supports skill acquisition. It also provides gradual opportunities to highlight improvement and discuss continued expectations of performance and growth, so there are no surprises.
  • Supervisor: carrot and stick. Being an FTO is not a popularity contest. At the end of the day, you have a responsibility to guide the development of a partner who can be counted on in critical situations. Make sure that you balance positive reinforcement with the recognition of possible negative consequences if a performance standard is not being met.
  • Advisor: been there, done that. As a seasoned patrol deputy, you have most likely had the benefit of encountering a lot of variation in the calls you have handled. Use your experience to help trainees avoid major pitfalls. Alerting them when they’re getting close to falling down not only preserves their momentum in training, it also saves you the headache of having to clean up the call. Finally, because you have abundantly more insight of what they need to know, practice referencing previous or standout calls to draw on their experiences (e.g., “Remember the call yesterday with the dog at the house?”). Associations/reminders like this will make complex tasks a bit easier to grasp.
  • Pressure gauge: determining how much is too much. The idea of heaping on pressure to train