Rookies training rookies: the current FTO situation?
Risk Management Through Regressive Field Training, Part 1
By: Cindy Scott and Randy Means
There was a time in many departments when to be a Field Training Officer (FTO) was 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. If that was an exaggeration, it is still true that FTO is a really important assignment—and would come in high on a list of most important people. Certainly, when one considers what factors and forces most shape the future of officers and agencies, field training figures heavily into the equation, and especially as risk management is concerned.
If all this is true—and it is—why wouldn’t today’s law enforcement agencies treat the Field Training Officer position as an elite assignment—like homicide detective? And why wouldn’t it be 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.”
Many law enforcement agencies are now using under-qualified officers as FTOs. Today, it is common for agencies to allow one or two-year officers to be FTOs. There used to be a name for a one- or two-year officer. It wasn’t FTO. It was rookie. It turns out that much of our most important training is being done by toddlers. Rookies are teaching rookies. In some cases, the FTO is a graduate of the last basic training class preceding the one that produced the now trainee. Surely, there is something wrong with this picture.
The essence of field training is not teaching new officers what they were already taught in the academy and will be taught again by their supervisors. It is to teach them how to be a police officer. It is to transfuse from the FTO to the trainee the benefits of the experience and wisdom of the FTO. Of course, a transfusion only works if the donor has the stuff to be transfused. The role model must be a model.
Ask relatively junior officers what they remember of their field training experience. One will get a variety of responses, of course. But unfortunately, and increasingly, a common response will be that the Field Training Program itself was laughable. Why? There were not enough qualified veteran officers willing to accept the responsibility of training new officers. This leaves the job and the tremendous responsibility that comes with it in the hands of young, inexperienced officers. This problem only occurs, of course, because agencies allow it. They allow the job to be left to those who are by definition unqualified for it.
Question: What might be even worse than rookies teaching rookies? Answer: The use of less-than-stellar officers serving as FTOs, i.e., the marginal training the deficient.
It follows that, if inexperienced officers are good enough to be FTOs, then mediocre experienced officers would also be good enough. It turns out that, in many agencies, the qualifications for being an FTO are: 1) a year or two of service, 2) hasn’t been disciplined lately, and 3) wants to be an FTO, for whatever reason. While it is true there are still some fine veteran officers serving as FTOs, it is also true that most don’t want to serve in that capacity. The result is that some agencies are working with just about anyone who “wants to” be an FTO.
Some people may say that if one doesn’t “want to” be an FTO, they won’t be a good FTO. This suggests, of course, that when a “professional” person is given one of the most important assignments in the entire industry—and told “your country needs you”—that person will then tank the assignment because it wasn’t what he/she really wanted to be doing. That thought, of course, flies in the face of the very concept of professionalism. Most professionals wouldn’t actually tank that assignment. They would just suck it up and do their really important job—and most would do it well. If it were learned otherwise, their service record should suffer.
Though these problems are prevalent, solutions are possible—but they require leadership initiative and commitment, even if temporarily unpopularity is a possibility. What skills and traits define an elite FTO? What if an agency doesn’t have enough of these supercops to staff the FTO function? These answers and a few valuable checklists will be in the June issue of LAW and ORDER.
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. She is also a certified Force Science Analyst, physical fitness instructor and an Air Force veteran. She may be reached at email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.