How to survive field training and keep your FTO happy
The easiest way to make sense of how to be successful at this is to simply recognize you’re the new guy
By Officer Sam Miceli (Santa Clara PD)
Congratulations, you’ve completed the police academy and field training is imminent. You’ve likely just spent the last several months working seemingly endless hours, completing arduous tasks, taking countless tests, running, jumping, pushing, fighting; all while an academy staff member breathes down your neck telling you it isn’t good enough. Ah … fun times.
The good news: You're one step closer to becoming a bonafide police officer!
The less good news: You’ve just completed the easiest part of your career.
So, how do you survive the senior officers hovering over you, assessing your every move until they eventually make a recommendation which essentially amounts to whether you get to keep your job? Well, the good news is most field training officers (FTOs) aspire to claim their title of FTO, truly enjoy training and recognize the importance of their influence on fresh, hopefully eager trainees entering the field training program. This essentially amounts to a first line supervisor who is going to be watching every move you make, but with the endgame being your successful completion of the program.
The easiest way to make sense of how to be successful at this is to simply recognize you’re the new guy and you’ll be subjected to new guy things. You can expect several things: To write a lot of police reports even if the offense occurs outside your area of responsibility; to be held to a higher uniform inspection expectation; to be called “boot” and other jovial nicknames; to take the least ideal assignments; to raise your hand and to volunteer before anyone else when a fellow officer comes looking for help with something. Embrace it; be proud of your new position and the possibly frustrating things that may come with it. Don’t lose sight, however, of the categories on your field training evaluations because they are paramount; they concern your safety, competency and directly determine whether you’re going to be successful in the program. Almost equally though, are the things which don’t fit into the standard categories which will ensure your positive reception on your new patrol team.
What specifically can you do to keep your FTO happy and succeed in the program? Here are a few things in no specific order which I’ve found helpful during my time as a trainee:
1. Be a sponge
Recognize you’re new and everybody else will almost certainly know more than you. Accordingly, ask as many questions as you need to before entering your final phase of training when your FTO will merely be shadowing you and is no longer a resource for answering your questions.
2. Be eager to learn
In addition to asking a question, it’s probably more important to be the type of employee that wants to learn and challenges themselves to constantly be learning in our ever-changing career. For instance, if you take on a case where the investigation requires a search warrant, tell your FTO you want to pair up with a detective and help write the search warrant. Don’t wait for somebody to ask you, take the initiative.
3. Don’t get cocky
Few things are more frustrating than a new officer who thinks they know everything when they’ve been an officer since breakfast. Humble yourself and make your bones during field training without bragging or pretending you’re Supercop.
4. Accept criticism and praise without being defensive
You’re new and you’re going to mess up, often. The purpose of the FTO criticizing you is not to merely inform you, but to improve you so it doesn’t happen again. Making mistakes is expected. The key is to not make the same ones repeatedly. When you’re criticized, your FTO is letting you know you didn’t meet an expectation, which is extremely valuable for you to be informed of so you know exactly where the bar is set. If you’re able to offer a mere explanation of your actions, without being defensive and while remaining receptive to the criticism you just received, that may be appropriate. Similarly, if you’re given praise, don’t gloat or let it go to your head … say thank you and know that’s the expectation from then on.
5. “Look sharp, act sharp, be sharp”
The all too familiar line from the TV series “Southland.” There are documented interviews in the FBI’s LEOKA (Law Enforcement Officers Killed in Action) report which state numerous felons imprisoned for murdering law enforcement officers did so simply because “they knew they could.” Some felons specifically stated the officer’s uniform and/or boots appeared unkempt, which caused them to assume the officer was lazy and cared about their job as much as their uniform. This is of course untrue and no excuse for the felons’ actions, but it’s important to note that something as menial as the creases in your uniform shirt can have an impact on how a suspect responds to your command presence.
On a lighter note, your field training evaluation will likely have an “appearance” category, so press your uniforms, shine your badge and polish your boots often, if not daily, because that’s an easy category to score points in. A former Recruit Training Officer once told me the academy is where the best snapshot of you will occur. You’ll be fit, focused and non-complacent. As officers, we tend to let ourselves slip, however gradually, after we leave the academy and there’s no longer academy staff keeping us in line. I personally challenge you to stay fit, know your stuff and remember that complacency kills.
6. Be respectful
Simply put, everybody is “sir” or “ma’am” unless you are told to call them something else. Even then, maybe let them tell you a couple of times before you stop. Respect both seniority and rank. Understand the senior guys with a few years left before retirement are not lazy, in fact they’ve likely spent the last 25 years doing exactly what you’re hoping to. Let them have their coffee and respond to their beat calls; you can go chase “Johnny Troublemaker” over fences and know the senior guy will still be there to help. Respect rank, regardless of your opinion of the person.
7. Switching FTOs
When you pass a field training phase, you’ll get another FTO. One of the most frustrating things you can do is tell your current FTO that you did something a certain way because your last FTO told you to do it that way. There are a million ways to do this job and achieve the same result, count yourself lucky you’re going to experience a mere three to four ways of doing it with your FTOs. The point is to expose you to different ways, so that if you pass the program, you can take what you liked and add it to your bag of tricks. So if your current FTO tells you something different than your last FTO, that’s fine, do it.
8. Roll with the punches
Coworkers may have fun at your expense. As the new guy who enjoys pranks and comedy, I always found it amusing. In fact, I’ll humble myself with a quick story and maybe it’ll foreshadow the shenanigans you may encounter as the new guy. I was fresh off training and took a burglary where the suspect defecated in the victim’s toilet and didn’t flush it. Knowing (mostly) excrement doesn’t contain usable DNA, I photographed it and left it alone. My sergeant, after reading my report, called me into the office, where he and a former Crime Scene Investigator spent the next 20 minutes convincing me I had left valuable evidence in the toilet. Even worse, because my department was out of “collection kits,” I’d have to make due with a plastic bag and a plastic spoon. I got halfway back to the house after calling to tell the victim not to flush her toilet before my sergeant called me, nearly in tears, telling me I didn’t in fact need to scoop poop out of a toilet with a plastic spoon. If you’re thinking “Wow, what an idiot!” that’s fair. When I got back to the station, my sergeant wrote “Doo Doo Collection Bag” on the bag I took and placed the plastic spoon inside. That bag still hangs from my locker today, even at my new agency. So, roll with the punches and see the humor in things, even if you’re the victim!
9. Keep your FTO happy
This one comes at the end of the list because it was more important for you to retain the above items first before I tell you to keep your FTO fed and caffeinated … but do it. Find out how your FTO likes to ease into their shift or wind down. Whether its food, coffee or tea, find out and if possible, get your FTO what they need. Some FTOs don’t care about any of those frills and just want you out there doing your job. If that’s the case, pack a Red Bull and stay busy.
What if you’re a lateral transfer? As somebody who has lateraled to a different agency, I can tell you my approach was nearly identical to what it was when I was a new guy. I did just about everything the same way, but if my FTO, a senior guy or a supervisor told me to cut it out because I wasn’t a “boot,” I’d oblige and silently appreciate their gesture. I was fortunate enough to land at an agency where my lateral FTO experience was great; they treated me like an experienced officer and respected my time on the job. If you find yourself having a different lateral experience, try embracing the “new guy” way again because things like “be respectful” and “Keep your FTO happy” will never lead you astray.
Often times, trainees leaving the academy feel as if they know everything because they’ve conquered the academy experience. Do not fall into that trap. The reality is the police academy prepares you to enter a field training program, it doesn’t guarantee you’re ready to succeed in it. That responsibility falls on your shoulders. Strive for success and embrace being the new guy; be humble, be hungry and be the hardest worker in the room. Upon completing field training, take pride you’ve landed amongst the closed ranks of law enforcement because it’s the greatest job on Earth.
About the Author
Officer Samuel Miceli is a police officer with the Santa Clara Police Department in Santa Clara, California, and is assigned to the patrol division. Officer Miceli has approximately four and a half years on the job and still considers himself the new guy. Officer Miceli is also employed as an Academy Instructor at the Santa Clara County Office of the Sheriff’s Basic Police Academy where he instructs in patrol procedures, crimes in progress and vehicle pullovers. Prior to being employed by SCPD, Officer Miceli started his career as a police officer with the Palo Alto Police Department where he was a negotiator on the Hostage Negotiation Team and was an Academy Mentor for new recruits in the academy.