Making FTO an elite assignment…again.
Risk Management Through Regressive Field Training, Part 2
By: Cindy Scott and Randy Means
(Ed. Note: Part 1 of this restoring FTO prestige article is in the May issue of LAW and ORDER. Go to www.hendonpub.com, click Resources, then Article Archives.)
To be a Field Training Officer (FTO) used to be part of an elite cadre of very special law enforcement experts. In fact, it was often said that the Field Training Officer was the most important person in a law enforcement agency. So, why wouldn’t today’s law enforcement agencies treat the Field Training Officer position as an elite assignment? And why isn’t a highly coveted position, as it once was in many agencies? There are many answers to these important questions, of course, but the most common answers are insufficient. The progressive answer may be “regressive” in a sense: a return to “the way things used to be.”
Though these problems are prevalent, solutions are possible—but they require leadership initiative and commitment, even if temporary unpopularity is a possibility. So, starting at the top: What skills and traits define an elite FTO? The answer is this question: What skills and traits are most critical to good police work, including risk management?
That answer could be a top 10 list: 1) Integrity: The highest priority is honesty and fairness, including lack of inappropriate bias; 2) expert knowledge of law and authority, or lack of authority, officers must know what they can and cannot do under law and policy and act accordingly; and 3) strong human relations and interpersonal skills. No skill set makes a greater contribution to officer effectiveness, safety and risk management in general. The sub-requirements here are empathy, compassion and patience.
Other top 10 skills and traits include: 4) tactical soundness and it is hard to imagine anyone more dangerous than an FTO who is deficient in this area; 5) emotional intelligence and self-control where an officer who is not high functioning in this area is likely to screw up all of the above; 6) physical fitness since at least modest levels of physical fitness and ability are necessary to safe and effective police work, especially in its most critical moments.
Along with physical fitness are: 7) mental fitness where an FTO whose main concern is where to eat at the next break, or who is cynical and negative, will not help in the training process, and naturally, an administration hater is not who is needed here; 8) maturity/wisdom since the adult brain is not fully formed in most males until the mid-20s, and for several years thereafter is like a new toy; testosterone levels are still dangerously high in males in their 20s, so surely, it is necessary that an FTO be able to think properly; 9) law enforcement experience and this should be non-negotiable, for obvious reasons; and 10) a strong work ethic and as with experience, this should be non-negotiable.
Incentives to Join the Elite
So, the solution is found in using FTOs who are between good to great in all of the above areas. But what if an agency doesn’t have enough of these supercops to staff the FTO function? Prioritization becomes necessary, of course. First, if there are veterans working in patrol who have the right stuff but just don’t want to be FTOs, the matter must be incentivized. One would hope the fact that this may be the most important job in the profession and make the greatest contribution to positive legacy might be incentive in itself.
If that isn’t enough, consider: 1) pay incentives for those who serve and serve well; 2) a requirement that one put in a solid stint as an FTO before one is eligible for special assignments, promotion or other things that people wish for; 3) preference in subsequent shift assignments, training schools, vacation schedules and other things people wish for; 4) a general requirement that all veteran officers rotate through FTO assignments and this could be applied to plain-clothes investigators as well; 5) a corporal (or similar) rank in which all corporals are FTOs; 6) various other forms of significant professional recognition: ribbons, pins, honors, etc.; and 7) reminders that one isn’t being asked to do this forever, just for a year or two or three. Again, one would hope that a serious, face-to-face, “your country needs you” recruiting effort (appeal to duty and honor) by the Chief or Sheriff or other well-respected leader might do the job.
“Joe/Jane, only a very few of our very best people have the right stuff to do the most important job in law enforcement. Only a very few can be entrusted with this. I know this isn’t your first choice of things to do, but I also know you will suck it up and do this well. You’ve never failed us before and you certainly aren’t going to do so just because we’ve awarded you the most important job we’ve got. You won’t be asked to do this forever, only for a couple years, but I will remember your service during this time and I will honor your devotion to duty in every way I can down the road.
“Congratulations, you’re our next Field Training Officer. Here’s your FTO service ribbon. A year from now we expect to put a silver star on it for your excellent work. One year later, we hope to honor you by placing a gold star on it, and you will wear it proudly for the rest of your career, even if at that point you choose not to serve longer as an FTO. Now, go and do good.”
It is both interesting and sad to note how many leaders have never considered this kind of talk and seem to be completely willing to live with under-qualified FTOs either because “our veteran officers don’t want to be FTOs” or “our veteran officers are all in special assignments. Field Training Officer should of course be a special assignment.
In many agencies, it is time to start over in staffing the field training function by creating a mostly newly selected elite cadre of FTOs who actually have the right stuff. And it will be hard indeed to convince a veteran officer that he/she is part of an elite corps when a person he/she is forming up with is a one- to two-year officer. It may be necessary to be regressive here, to look backward in time and remember the way all this once was.
Consider this conversation: The two-year “want-to-be” looks at you incredulously and asks, “So, you would rather have a mediocre veteran than a hard-charging two-year guy?” You give no answer. He says, “Well?” You say, “It’s a hard question. I need to think about it.”
If the only choice an agency has is between two under-qualified people, then the better of the bad choices should be picked. If there are other ways these dynamics could be approached, consideration should be given to those other ways to do this most important business. All of the most important things depend on it.
Sergeant Cindy Scott is a 23-year veteran and 13 year supervisor in the Alexandria, Va. Police Department. She currently heads her agency’s Tactical Training Unit and Field Training Program. Scott is also a certified Force Science Analyst, physical fitness instructor and an Air Force veteran. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Randy Means is a 34-year career police legal advisor and trainer, author of The Law of Policing, former department head at a state police academy, and former head of the national association of police legal advisors. He may be reached at email@example.com.