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Why the FTO is one of the most important police employees

Being a Field Training Officer — teaching young officers the right way to do the job — can be one of the most rewarding assignments in all of law enforcement


Being an FTO can be one of the most rewarding assignments in all of law enforcement.


A reasonable argument can be made that the quality of a police department is directly correlated to the quality of its FTO program. Being a Field Training Officer — teaching young officers the right way to do the job — can be one of the most rewarding assignments in all of law enforcement. Lifelong friendships are often made, and the sense of accomplishment at the sight of a young officer’s “lightbulb moment” is extraordinary.

Thomas Dworak — a retired sergeant from Wilmette (Ill.) Police Department who is now an instructor with The Virtus Group — travels the country teaching something he calls the Adaptive FTO, and it’s a model that has been met with wide-ranging praise for its success.

The Adaptive FTO concept addresses the instruction of a recruit from a different perspective than many other models, recognizing that the FTO role has to evolve as the demands put on officers has changed over the years.

More than checking boxes

Dworak says that the position entails far more than simply checking boxes on the FTO checklist.

“If we look at how field training has evolved over time, a lot of check boxes, a lot of forms, a lot of policies — but we don’t do the job that way. You know, an incident may happen and all of a sudden we don’t have a policy, or a rule, or a form to cover it. [Through] the Adaptive FTO method, what we do is train the FTOs to have an adaptive philosophy in problem-solving, decision-making, communication, and to train the recruits in there,” Dworak told Police1.

“We primarily make decisions, but if you look at the way some of the FTO models are set up, you’ve got a checkbox for making decisions, but you might have three boxes to cover radio usage and three boxes for writing reports. But that decision-making component and communication in terms of how we interact with each other are far more important than how we talk on a radio and how we write reports.”

Dworak explained that the Adaptive FTO method of teaching a recruit incorporates a lot of research from noted experts. For example, there is emotional intelligence component based on the work of Daniel Goleman, a renowned psychologist. Other instruction is based on Carol Dweck’s research concluding that people have fixed or growth mindsets, and how to turn the former into the latter. Adaptive FTOs are able to teach the principles put forth by Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley in their book Left of Bang, such as being able to observe baselines and anomalies which can help significantly increase officer safety. Adaptive FTOs are also taught Daniel Kahneman’s system one and system two thinking.

“I call it Thing One and Thing Two, where the Thing One brain is the automatic responsive brain and Thing Two brain is the thinking brain, and kind of how those two interact,” Dworak said. “De-escalation is the ugly ‘D word’ in policing now. But how about we give you a tactical decision-making tool that slows down time, if we have it, to make an appropriate decision? When I say that everyone goes, ‘Yeah! What is it?’ It’s de-escalation.”

Dworak said that part of the emotional intelligence component of the Adaptive FTO model brings in the social skills, communication skills, empathy, and putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

“Do we have the ability to read somebody else’s emotions and respond appropriately to them?”

Avoiding FTO burnout

Dworak cautioned about agencies falling into situations in which they over-work their FTOs, resulting in diminished quality of work, and subsequently, decreased value delivered to the recruit being instructed. One of the biggest things, he said, is to simply overlook the need for downtime between assignments.

“I went through it several times over the course of my career, primarily when we were doing heavy hires. It does wear on you. That’s part of the thing of being able to switch up FTOs and then giving those guys and gals breaks — it’s like any other stress-related type thing that we deal with. You’ve got to give them some alone time. You’ve got to let them decompress because it is a stressful thing, training. It may not seem like it sometimes, but it’s always there. Especially those who want to do a very good job at it”.

Dworak said that the right period of time for that decompression period varies depending on the person and the circumstance.

“I generally found after about two weeks of just being alone, I was pretty much back to normal and good. But that could vary from person to person, but just being back in your normal routine and being alone, not having to worry about what somebody else is doing, is generally enough to get people back. At least it’s what I’ve seen from my experience in talking to other FTOs.”

FTO as a rewarding experience

For Dworak, watching a trainee rise through the ranks was one of the most rewarding parts of being an FTO. He had trained many young officers over the course of his FTO time and saw some of his trainees eventually make Lieutenant and other ranks higher than his own.

“I had the pleasure of training a lot of these guys and gals and then they at points moved up and became my boss at several different levels. You can have a different conversation with those guys and gals — there’s a mutual respect there and a lot of times you just get called in so they have somebody to vent to because they trust you. If you do the FTO job well, it develops into a friendship — it really does. And it lasts pretty much your entire career,” Dworak said.

Dworak added that there’s also a sense of pride in doing the FTO job well — that you get truly invested in “turning out a good product” in a sense.

“You have to think of that their success is your success, because the first time that kid screws up, is out on his own, the first question someone’s going to ask is, ‘Who the hell trained you?’ And so, we look for these guys and gals to how they perform and how they develop over the course of time and it really does give you that sense of pride and that sense of accomplishment to say, ‘Hey, you know what, this one turned out really well and I feel good about what we did, regardless of how easy or difficult it was. They’re there and they’re a good cop.’”

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.