In one scene of the 1989 Civil War movie “Glory,” Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick), inspects the level of readiness of his troops and is witness to trainees undergoing marksmanship training. Col. Shaw watches as one soldier in particular, being cheered on by his fellow trainees, demonstrates his proficiency with the rifle while taking slow and well-aimed shots.
Col. Shaw approaches the soldier, comments on his marksmanship ability and urges him to demonstrate once more. As the soldier begins readying his muzzle-loader for his next shot, Col. Shaw begins inducing stress upon the new soldier through forceful commands to load faster and faster and firing a revolver behind the man while he continues to reload and shoot.
The soldier is visibly shaking as he now struggles to perform under stress what he once was able to do smoothly while at ease. After this demonstration, Col. Shaw approaches the Major conducting the training and tells him:
“Teach them properly, Major.”
In this movie scene, we see vividly demonstrated how improper training can create an inflated sense of confidence based on faulty teaching methodology. In turn, this can result in one’s confidence exceeding one’s competence.
In a law enforcement context, the field-training officer assumes the role of the Major; and it is the job of that field-training officer to ‘Teach them properly.’
The field-training officer is arguably the most important cog in the machine that is the first-level training arm of the department. With various field-training philosophies aside, an FTO program is only as good as its trainers, their levels of dedication and belief in their mission.
Newly hired police recruits are first exposed to the law enforcement way of doing things during their time in basic academy classes. However, by the very nature of the mission undertaken by the police academy, the course work these recruits are exposed to during this time is a broad generalization of what they must know with regards to performing their jobs effectively and correctly. It is when the recruit completes basic academy-level training and enters the FTO program that they are really exposed to the culture of their particular department and the ‘nuances’ of the types of policing their particular community requires... basically, ‘our way of doing things.’
As a new recruit myself, I vividly remember a grizzly (and large) veteran patrol lieutenant explaining to me that I would first go through the police academy and once I returned, they’d show me how things were ‘really’ done. As arrogant or trite as that may sound, it is the reality of the recruit training process.
A new recruit comes to an agency as a very moldable individual. His or her attitude and outlook — toward their coworkers, the department as a whole, and of the community which they will serve — is greatly influenced by their experiences with their field training officers. Additionally, if these recruits are not taught properly, they exit the field-training program with flawed technical competence and a false sense of confidence that can and will continue to perpetuate itself long into their career.
A perfect example lies with the standardized field sobriety tests established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Many officers seem to have forgotten (if they ever learned it) that these tests are called ‘standardized’ for a reason. These tests were designed and validated by the courts on a national level. This means that they must be performed in the exact same manner and in the exact same sequence from California to New York and all areas in between for them to be valid in court, every time.
However, too often I observe officers not adhering to this strict protocol when administering these exercises in the field. If the FTO himself is not competent in performing this task, then how can they effectively pass that task along to their trainee? If the trainee is taught improperly and allowed to complete the field-training program, they continue performing their jobs improperly as patrol officers in the field — and even as future FTOs — and it erodes professionalism and effectiveness. It should be easy to see how this issue can ‘water-down’ the overall professionalism and effectiveness of an entire department if field-training programs continually turn out improperly trained recruits.
An FTO’s development should be an ongoing endeavor in that they should not limit their experience to those times in which they are assigned a trainee. Due to the nature of their task, an FTO must develop and maintain a broad knowledge base and be able to pass this information along to their charge in an effective manner. This can be a very daunting task. Often, the more areas in which an individual works to excel results in their being mediocre in many and above average in none.
However, it is not impossible. One way to accomplish this is to empower the FTO as a trainer department-wide; not limiting their mission to times they are engaged in the field-training process. FTO’s can be utilized on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis to develop and provide in-service training blocks of instruction to the department as a whole.
One of the most effective ways to become more knowledgeable in a given subject is to research then disseminate it through a period of instruction (lecture, training bulletins, etc). I’ve done this several times throughout my career on topics ranging from neighborhood watch-type groups to asset seizure and forfeiture, and many in between. None of these topics were among my ‘specialties’ but through this technique, I was able to add valuable knowledge to my repertoire and improve overall as a result.
The position of field-training officer is one of great responsibility and should not be taken lightly. Whereas the police academy may forge the recruit into the basic shape of a police officer, it is the FTO who hones their edge. If an FTO is to be effective, they must realize they are teachers and accept that role; and they must believe in their mission. We often look to our pool of FTO’s and their performance in that capacity as future leaders in our department. An FTO is very much like a sergeant in that they are in a leadership position and must lead; and must do so by good example. This affords the FTO an excellent opportunity to test and develop their leadership and instructional skills at a one-on-one level with a trainee before moving on to a position with a larger span of control, such as that of a sergeant.