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Confessions of a field training officer

‘Everything was going along swimmingly. Right up until he accidentally shot himself on duty as I stood directly next to him.’

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We change – we all change. I’ve changed. I’m better now than I was three decades ago. This is what I sometimes think about as I sit at my home office desk, writing training bulletins for Lexipol, reflecting on my career as a police field training officer, training program coordinator and training program supervisor. If only I knew then what I know now, I would have been better. This is probably something you’ve thought to yourself as well.

This isn’t about guilt. I’m not trying to forgive myself for anything. I’m quite proud of the officers I trained and what they’ve been able to accomplish since passing in and out of the patrol cars I occupied. Our training office included two seats, a windshield, a steering wheel, a radio and – in time – a mobile data computer (which made life so much easier).

We operated in the system we were provided, recognizing it as well as a fish that recognizes water. We always did the best we could with what we were provided – me agonizing over how I could get my trainee to a place where I felt comfortable saying he or she would be “good to go” on the street; them struggling to comprehend and apply all the complexities of policing a busy, urban, high-crime city with a reputation for toughness.

Two years into my career, I was drafted by a tough-as-nails on the outside (but soft-as-marshmallow on the inside, once you got to know him) lieutenant who, for reasons I still can’t explain, thought that I was a “good cop.” Two years in, I was still trying to figure out the effective application of Terry v. Ohio, among many other things. But because the lieutenant needed field training officers, he looked around for people he thought were good cops. This makes sense, but if I knew then that being a “good cop” and being a “good teacher” were two completely separate things, I would have taken a dramatically different approach to the job.

Naturally, I went to the requisite field training officer (FTO) school, where I learned basic information about teaching, evaluation and vicarious liability. Literally, that’s all I remembered about FTO school: Fill out your evaluations, do it promptly, and if your trainee messes up, know that you can be sued (try not to let your trainee screw up). What I don’t remember learning about was the concept of “learning” – that is, how adults learn and how I might be able to affect that. If only I knew then what I know now.

And then I was assigned my first trainee. I was doing a great job! I found that I was a natural trainer. I taught, I evaluated, I was a role model. Everything was going along swimmingly. Right up until he accidentally shot himself on duty as I stood directly next to him. OK, he didn’t actually shoot himself…or maybe it would be more accurate to say he didn’t actually shoot himself.

All I was trying to do was introduce him to the local pawn shop and its owners, with whom I’d appropriately developed a professional relationship. They were happy to show my trainee their gun safe. Who would have thought they would accidentally leave a round chambered in the .22 caliber semi-auto pistol the owner thought he’d show off? And how was I to know my trainee would immediately violate firearm safety rules 1 and 2 (“Treat all guns as if they are loaded” and “Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire”)? Well, remember “vicarious liability”? Especially that part about “don’t let your trainee screw up”? I never forgot that lesson.

By the way, my trainee was fine. The gun discharged into the gun safe and the bullet fragmented. He was hit with a small fragment in his thigh but was otherwise uninjured. We were allowed to continue working together and I didn’t even lose my FTO position, although I never took my trainees back to the pawnshop. Thereafter, I found it was enough to simply drive by and point it out. For some reason, after passing the pawnshop, our conversation would always turn to a review of basic firearms safety rules.

It was rare the lessons I learned impacted me like that unexpected shot. Typically, they came far too late to do anything other than apply them to future assignments. Maybe that’s true with all learning, but my education was slow to develop. It came mostly through life experience and some rudimentary coaching from lieutenants and other mentors. Only much later, when I invested a significant amount of time reading, observing and reflecting, was I able to identify the lessons from these experiences.

This leads me to confess that I’m confident I made every mistake possible in the decades I spent as a police field training officer. Although I probably made several garden-variety, single-incident errors, those aren’t the ones I’m talking about here. My confession concerns more fundamental blunders – thinking I was a “teacher,” an “evaluator” and a “role model” when a trainee accompanied me. At the time, I considered this role ambiguity “being flexible.” Perhaps it was a form of situational leadership, an adaptation to what I believed the trainee – or the organization – needed from me at any given time.

In hindsight, this was an essential flaw in my training paradigm. You might be thinking, “That’s what training officers dothey teach, they evaluate, they serve as role models. These aren’t flaws, that’s how we do business!” Clearly, I felt that way for many years. Now I know there’s a different, perhaps better, approach.

Before we get to that, we need to explore the advantages and disadvantages of the teacher, evaluator and role model mindsets. Only by examining these three mindsets more closely can we show why they fall short and in turn answer the question, what makes a good field training officer?

Field training officer as teacher

As an FTO, I was a teacher. My trainees depended on me to teach them stuff. That “stuff” included what it took to be a successful solo officer at our agency. From my perspective, that meant I needed to teach them everything I could in our time together, including search and seizure, officer safety, geography and report writing (and so much more). I also taught the methods of conducting various criminal and traffic investigations, how to speak to people in crisis situations and who the “bad guys” were – those I knew of, anyway.

To keep it all organized, our agency provided an FTO program manual where everything the trainee did was documented and/or “signed off” by me, my trainee, and his or her other trainers. I was responsible for teaching stuff in a certain phase, and I had to depend on other training officers to teach stuff in theirs.

But wait, it wasn’t me who had to depend on the other training officers, was it? It was the trainee who had to depend on me and on the other training officers. And this is where I eventually came to realize the two flaws in my philosophy of FTO as teacher: First, while I was focused on “teaching,” I sometimes wasn’t focused on what mattered – what the trainee was learning. And second, the trainee shouldn’t depend on me for his or her success in the program.

As to the first point, I wasn’t clueless. I recognized a nexus between teaching and learning. I watched for evidence that a trainee was applying lessons learned by not making the same mistakes over and over. Repeating errors, even after teaching and training, was an indicator that the trainee had not yet learned. My response was to try to “teach harder,” or somehow “better,” whatever that meant. Rarely did it mean “differently,” such as accounting for learning styles. Without insight regarding how adults learn, my trainees and I probably unwittingly stumbled through the dark together more often than I knew at the time. In truth, I suspect some trainees succeeded in spite of my efforts, rather than because of them.

My trainees had instructors at the academy, and my trainees successfully graduated. It was my job to take them to the next level by applying the lessons they learned in the academy, to contextualize our agency-specific processes and to bring the geography of our city to life. In essence, my role was to cause them to remember what they learned in the academy so that we could build on it in the complex, unpredictable, unsterile environment of the street. This is quite different from the traditional FTO mantra, “Forget all that stuff you learned in the academy. I’m going to show you how it really works now.” To accomplish this, I had to hold them accountable for academy lessons, cause them to recall and apply those lessons, and then build on the lessons. I’ve since learned this is primarily facilitation, rather than teaching.

Another aspect of being the “teacher” in our emergency-equipped mobile office was that it automatically put us on different tiers. Some training officers might appreciate – or even relish – the implicit rank structure in the FTO-trainee relationship, but research suggests adult learners aren’t as enthusiastic about it. If you’re unsure about this, think back to your own field training experience. Did you feel free to ask any question? Were you trying to behave more like your trainer than yourself in unfamiliar situations? Were you intimidated by more than just the task of learning the knowledge you were trying to master? Ultimately, did you feel you and your training officer were equally valuable to your agency? My point: The differing statuses in the car probably impacted some of the learning we were trying to accomplish, and I was guilty of perpetuating the situation with my own mindset.

It wasn’t enough that I had seniority, experience and confidence; my trainees looked to me as “the expert.” That put a lot of pressure on me to “know stuff.” While I wasn’t inclined to give an answer when I didn’t know the answer, what training officer enjoys saying, “I don’t know”? We do it when we must – sparingly, diffidently—before immediately correcting the knowledge gap. Being “the expert” was another form of creating a status conflict in our car. My goal should have been to cause my trainees to become “the expert” as they traveled the road to solo patrol. Instead of reluctantly answering, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know,” perhaps it would be better to say, “That’s a great question. How do you think we should find the answer?”

I understand the role of an FTO is to teach, to train, to educate. Trainees – and our agencies – depend on us to teach the requisite “stuff” of policing. However, I found thinking of myself as a teacher in the FTO role limited what I had to offer, placed me in a position of superiority over my trainees, and caused me to focus more on my teaching, instead of focusing on the trainee’s learning.

Field training officer as evaluator

As an FTO, I was an evaluator. I could not escape evaluation, and in many ways evaluating my trainee’s performance caused me to think harder, to know my job better, and to provide accurate, effective feedback. In time, I realized evaluating how well – or how poorly – a trainee managed a traffic stop or a domestic dispute was different than completing written evaluations at the end of the shift.

Evaluating in the moment allowed me to analyze various components of behavior. Did the trainee observe the traffic violation? Was he or she able to communicate the impending stop on the radio? Did the trainee properly position the patrol car behind the violator? What did he or she say to the motorist and how did the interaction go? Was the trainee aware of officer safety issues? How long did it take the trainee to issue the citation, and was it for the correct violation? All these observations allowed the opportunity to ask the trainee about his or her thought process, to issue reminders about this or that, to make suggestions for improvement, and to talk about how the incident went.

But the end-of-the-day evaluations were a different animal. I was required to assign a numerical score to general categories such as “routine driving,” “emergency driving,” “officer safety” and “radio communications.” How was I to score a trainee who performed perfectly during the car stop, but stood in the “fatal funnel” at the entrance to a residence on a domestic call? Yes, it’s true we had “standardized evaluation guidelines” to provide general information about what the numbers were supposed to mean, but I still wrestled with the scoring. Trainees were the only consistency – they all complained the numbers were inconsistent from trainer to trainer, and sometimes from day to day!

The shortcomings of these written evaluations is not my biggest concern, however. My experience and learning have now shown me that, in some cases, with some trainees, I was an evaluator. That is, when a trainee wasn’t doing well, I shelved the teacher role and went into evaluation mode. I critically evaluated everything: every action, every wrong turn, every misspelled word in every report. In one case, the guy’s bad breath was subject to scrutiny. I suspect I wasn’t very fun to work with in these times.

In my role as an evaluator, I acted as a gatekeeper. I believed I tried – oftentimes very hard – to teach what needed to be taught. I believed the trainee had been given every opportunity to learn – and was failing. I can rationalize and say that not everyone is meant to be a cop, and I can try to rationalize that I was just one of the many who could see it, but I won’t. I’ll just own it. Sometimes, I was a vehicle for dismissing people who sought a career at our agency because I didn’t believe they could cut it. And then I “evaluated” them out. In some cases, I know this was the right thing to do. But was it in all cases?

Fortunately, I can tell far more tales of success than failure. The skill of effective evaluation served me well and continues to do so. It is impossible to evaluate when you don’t know or understand a concept and can’t apply or analyze it. Evaluation is a higher-order thinking process, valuable for all its benefits. What matters is how one approaches it, and the intent behind it.

Field training officer as role model

As an FTO, I was a role model. I knew I was being watched, and I saw my trainees modeling the behavior I exhibited on the street. In most cases, this was a positive thing; I generally behaved the way I wanted my trainees to behave. But no one’s perfect, right? As an imperfect human, it’s possible I exposed shortcuts, introduced minor administrative “workarounds” and revealed strategies best left to veterans (or out of the repertoire altogether).

Role modeling, I’ve found, has its proper place. For visual learners, modeling may be one of the most effective training tools. For example, when a trainee sees how an investigation into driving under the influence goes – from start to finish, and out of the safe confines of the academy – he or she can more comfortably and accurately replicate it. A trainee who sees a trainer model various conflict-resolution strategies has a very direct opportunity to expand his or her own repertoire.

But role modeling also has its disadvantages. It can inhibit a trainee’s willingness or ability to develop his or her own style. This is problematic because the agency ultimately doesn’t want a bunch of carbon copies of “you” out there; it wants a variety of perspectives, approaches, problem-solving strategies and personalities. This helps us respond to our community’s diversity, and to creatively address the complex, long-term problems we face.

Also, seeing yourself as a role model keeps the focus on you. You scrutinize your actions, seeking to be worthy of emulation. Just as trying to be the best teacher causes you to focus on your teaching, rather than the trainee’s learning, trying to be the best role model can cause you to focus on your behavior, rather than the trainee’s.

field training officer as coach

So if teacher, evaluator and role model don’t quite fit, what does make a good field training officer? I propose a different model: the field training officer as coach. When I enter a teacher-learner relationship thinking of myself as a coach, I can teach, I can evaluate and I can be a role model – the difference being that I’m more focused on the learner and the learning.

We often immediately think of sports when we hear the word “coach.” While this is an excellent framework, coaches exist in education, professional situations and even therapeutic settings. Essentially, a coach is someone who supports another person to achieve a specific goal. For our purpose, it may not be difficult to imagine a training officer as a person who helps an academy graduate reach the goal of solo patrol.

One of the key aspects of coaching is that both the coach and the person being coached, believe the person being coached has the ability to achieve the goal. This is most commonly seen in sports, where the athlete or a team of athletes is supported and encouraged by a coach to compete at their highest level and to win in competition. An FTO who acts as a coach teaches with compassion, evaluates with positive intent, and models without creating, expecting or imposing limitations.

In a professional setting, a coach may spend more time asking questions than lecturing or attempting to transfer information. The questions may be to facilitate clarification in the trainee’s mind. In a policing context, for example, a question might be, “When you walked up to the house, what was on your mind?” Or questions may be used to direct focus: “When you stopped the car, what were you going to look for, and what did you intend to say to the driver?” In either instance, the coach’s goal is to facilitate the trainee’s learning, lead them to apply lessons learned and cause them to contemplate factors they may not have considered. In this way, the coach supports the trainee’s efforts to be successful, interjecting relevant content only when necessary.

Many of us believe we learn best by “doing,” but this is only part of the story; we learn best when we reflect on what we’ve done. Good coaches allow learners to practice. Great coaches cause learners to reflect on what they’ve done so they can repeat success and improve on it, as well as identify errors or failures and learn from them.

Coaching can include elements of teaching, evaluating and role modeling. It might also include a variety of other strategies that would also support the trainee’s success. One successful sports coach has provided enduring insight into the practice. John Wooden, the basketball coach for UCLA during the 1960s and 1970s was, by all measures, a winner. His student-athletes won multiple championships in consecutive years, and his team produced future Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Gail Goodrich.

Coach Wooden’s approach

In his book, “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court,” Coach Wooden provides some tips we can apply to envision the field training officer as coach:

  • Put your learner first. Coach Wooden advocated caring about the individual, not just as an athlete or a means to an end (winning championships), but as a person who has a goal. He recognized his coaching position as one of great responsibility to his students and he demonstrated that he valued them as people, perhaps more than he valued them for their athleticism.
  • Respect your learner. As an FTO, it’s often easier to expect respect than to reciprocate. Our paramilitary structure may be partly to blame, and our mindset as a teacher may also play a role. For Coach Wooden, giving his players respect was critically important to their success. He believed pride was a better motivator than fear, and pride comes when you give respect.
  • Motivate your learner. Coach Wooden believed knowledge alone isn’t enough to achieve the desired results; a coach must motivate his people. We can imagine the difference between a smart, motivated cop and a smart, unmotivated cop. I can tell you which one I would prefer to work with—and which one I would prefer to support toward solo patrol.
  • Allow your learner to struggle. Being a coach doesn’t mean making everything easier for a trainee. Coach Wooden believed goals should be difficult to achieve and goals achieved with little effort are seldom worthwhile or lasting. Moving from academy graduation to solo patrol is a difficult goal, and it should require reasonable effort. When done correctly, a trainee and the FTO have cause to celebrate a worthwhile accomplishment. On the flip side, an FTO is not there to create white noise or to make things more difficult than they need to be. Remember, a coach should support the learner. They should neither carry a trainee nor obstruct progress.

Coach Wooden’s reflections inspired me to consider what I’d learned since 1988 about training. It’s quite a lot, and it’s the result of getting older, examining what I knew and didn’t, accepting some coaching, practicing it in turn, and reading. Any of us can do it (although the getting older part can be trying at times) with a bit of effort, some honest self-awareness and circumspect reflection.

In my career, I went from field training officer to training program coordinator to training program supervisor. I learned along the way from all my experiences. But like my trainees, I don’t expect you to learn from my experiences; I expect you to learn from your experiences. I can only hope my experiences offer insight into ways you might be more effective now, so years from now you don’t think to yourself, “If I only knew then what I know now.”

And that’s my confession.

Next: 12 benefits of becoming a field training officer

Roger Buhlis is a training developer for Lexipol. He has 26 years of experience in law enforcement, during which he served as a field training officer, crime scene investigator, traffic (motorcycle) enforcement and coordinator of the Problem-Based Learning Police Training Program. As a sergeant, Roger supervised patrol teams, the jail facility, the property section and the Police Training Officer Program. He spent three years as an investigator in the Professional Standards Unit (Internal Affairs). He is a graduate of the California POST Master Instructor Program and was assigned to the Napa Valley College Criminal Justice Training Center to work with Academy Class 50 as the Recruit Training Officer in 2002. He served as the adjutant to four different patrol bureau commanders, first as an officer and later, as a sergeant. Roger facilitated courses for the California POST Supervisory Leadership Institute for 10 years through 2019. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in adult education.