A field training officer’s starter pack for teaching, feedback and mentorship

The FTO is one of the most important roles in any agency. So don’t forget these essentials

By Ron Erickson

There are few roles in law enforcement more important than the field training officer (FTO). Personnel assigned as FTOs mold and shape the employees who are the future of the organization. FTOs have become even more important in recent years as agencies struggle with a reduction in qualified applicants. It is therefore essential that agencies emphasize the development of new officers.

The first few months for a police trainee are crucial. It’s during this time that the trainee learns the agency’s goals, missions and processes and a positive mindset is forged. The FTO must lead, guide, mentor and encourage new officers to perform at their best. To help FTOs accomplish that feat, this article shares tips to prepare trainees to excel as skilled law enforcement professionals and team members. Hopefully, these tips will also renew the training officer’s commitment to their role and reinvigorate an agency’s appreciation for this essential position.

Start with the basics

Make sure your trainee clearly understands the agency’s goals and expectations. This is also the time to hold the trainee accountable on all levels; make sure they take ownership of their actions. Provide continuous feedback, good and bad. New officers are used to receiving instant knowledge and feedback. Address these basic policing priorities:

  • Officer safety is the number one priority.
  • Face the largest part of one’s body armor toward the greatest threat.
  • Use noise and light discipline.
  • When responding to a call, anticipate the destination address and stop short of it.
  • Park tactically to maintain the element of surprise.
  • Don’t slam the squad car doors; let the latch catch softly and push it closed.
  • Use cover and concealment (and explain the difference).
  • Always have an escape plan.
  • Develop and trust your “sixth sense.” If it doesn’t look right, it isn’t.
  • When interviewing subjects, ask open-ended questions. Don’t give interviewees the answer.
  • Pauses in communication tend to favor officers; let whoever is speaking fill in the gaps.
  • Take an investigation as far as you possibly can. It will hone the trainee’s skills and benefit the investigators.
  • We don’t have to know everything, but we do have to know how to find the answers.

Establish proper report writing techniques. We write to inform, not to impress. Use simple, concise documentation with proper spelling and grammar. Add all the pertinent details in order of when they happened. Writing in the first person is strongly recommended; this is how we speak. Do not use police jargon or large words.

Remember, humans make mistakes. This is the time for the new officer to make mistakes so they can learn from them and move on. Encourage the trainee to embrace all training opportunities; experience builds efficiency and expertise. A professional is someone who has mastered the basics.

Teaching 101

Each trainee is unique, so FTOs must be prepared to vary their teaching technique to address each trainees’ learning style. Training officers do not want a clone of themselves. Trainees should adopt the skills they like from their FTO (or others they observe) and apply those skills to their own styles. FTOs should also encourage trainees to learn what not to do. A trainee can learn just as much by witnessing something that was handled the wrong way.

A good teaching strategy is as follows:

  • Tell your trainee how to do X.
  • Show them how to do X.
  • Allow them to perform X.
  • Assess and evaluate the performance of X.
  • Repeat X until proficiency is gained.

Remember to enable and empower your trainee to do things on their own. Our natural human instinct is to do things ourselves; resist this instinct. Remember, different is not always wrong, it is just different. Practice role-playing and scenarios-based training, especially for infrequent call types.

Conduct continuous situational debriefings and encourage trainees to mentally do their own debriefs throughout their careers. You can use the following debriefing prompts as a template:

  • What did they do wrong?
  • What could they have done better?
  • What could they have done differently?
  • What did they do correctly? Replicate this behavior.

Technology is your friend

Technology, when available, is an excellent resource for police training. Consider the following:

On the other hand, technology will inevitably fail at times. FTOs must teach their trainees to be proficient in analog alternatives. How do you navigate to address locations with no GPS assistance? How do you write reports when your Report Management System (RMS) is down? How do you find pertinent data in your in-house RMS when the state system is down? Cover all these scenarios.  

Also, make sure the trainee is gathering all the pertinent information needed to update your records management system from contacts. Don’t rely on existing information in your system because it is seldom accurate and will create more work for others.

Documenting the trainee’s performance

This is one of the most important skills for a training officer to master. FTOs should conduct a detailed Daily Observation Report (DOR). The details are important in all circumstances, especially if things aren’t going well. Law enforcement isn’t for everyone. Note the following items in your DOR:

  • Any corrective actions that were taken.
  • Positive information.  
  • Not Responding to Training (NRT) situations.
  • Re-occurring issues.

Share re-occurring issues with your shift supervisor and training coordinator immediately. Do not wait until the end of a training phase. FTO coordinators need to share this information with their administration to determine if extensions, remedial training, corrective action plans or job separation is needed.

Remember the bigger picture

An FTO’s commitment to the role helps agencies develop exceptional officers. Successful field training will also polish the FTO’s own leadership skills. Those skill sets will help FTOs succeed in lateral assignments and future supervisory roles. Good FTO work has a lasting and profound effect on both the FTO and the trainee – as well as on the agency’s overall success.

About the author

Capt. Ron Erickson is the Operations Commander of the Rock Island County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois. He is a graduate of Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and has 29 years of law enforcement experience. He has trained 35 deputy sheriffs and amassed more than 36 months of FTO training.

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