Field training: The paradigm has changed
The FTO isn’t always right
The conviction of three former Minneapolis police officers for violating the civil rights of George Floyd is good reason to rethink the traditional mindset and socialization of rookie officers. The old values and traditions no longer apply.
When former Officer Derek Chauvin responded to the report of George Floyd passing a counterfeit $20 bill at the Cup Foods store in Minneapolis, he had two rookie officers with him. J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane had completed the police academy only the week before the incident. Chauvin was their field training officer (FTO). Tou Thao had been a Minneapolis police officer for about eight years. Thao was working solo, and arrived on scene at the same time as Chauvin’s car, also occupied by Kueng and Lane. Thao handled crowd control, keeping bystanders away from Chauvin and the two rookie officers as they held Floyd on the ground.
Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck area for over nine minutes, as documented in a video recorded by a bystander. Kueng and Lane held down Floyd’s arms and legs. Floyd was later found to have methamphetamine and fentanyl in his system, but his cause of death was attributed to suffocation brought about by Chauvin’s prolonged kneeling on his neck, cutting off his airway.
The field training experience
Those of us who have been police officers have clear and sometimes terrifying memories of our time with a field training officer. After months, sometimes years, of written and physical testing, enduring and surviving the police academy, and having our private lives laid bare during background investigations, we had received our badges and were out in the real world, doing real police stuff. It was exhilarating.
The experience was tempered somewhat by the presence of our assigned FTO, who was riding alongside us in the patrol car. The FTO watched, evaluated and recorded everything we did, from having shoelaces properly tied to performing searches for weapons on people placed under arrest. All these topics had been taught and performed during the academy, but now the stakes were much more crucial. If you missed the gun concealed in the crotch of a prisoner’s blue jeans, you wouldn’t just fail the scenario. Both you and your FTO could wind up dead.
You were supposed to do whatever your FTO told you to do. The FTO had the experience, the training and the confidence of police management. There just wasn’t a situation where the FTO’s orders could be ignored. Doing so could easily mean a quick trip back to the station and an uncomfortable audience with the watch commander, a meeting that would end with you being unemployed and your hard-earned badge lying on his desk.
Former officers Lane and Kueng were doubtless educated on this model. They had less than one week of experience in being cops, where their FTO had 19 years. Chauvin had the blessing and trust of management. Lane and Kueng would move forward in their careers only if Chauvin endorsed them to do so, and telling Chauvin he was doing something wrong would not be received well. When Chauvin told them to hold down Floyd’s arms and legs, they were obligated to do so until they were directed otherwise. Last week, they were convicted of felony civil rights charges for following the orders of their FTO.
Neophyte police officers have to learn more than just the mechanical aspects of law enforcement. They also enter a branch of society with norms and values distinct from the mainstream. This subset of humanity is more cognizant of danger and keeps itself ready to defend against attack by routinely carrying firearms and other weapons, a practice that is often objectionable to people outside of the group. Cops run toward dangerous situations when most people are running away. The use of force to accomplish their mission is not reprehensible, as outsiders might see it. Force is simply one more tool available to get the job done.
Veteran cops expect new officers to still be acclimating to this mindset. They will lend advice and give guidance as needed. What they generally won’t tolerate is an objection or resistance to their methods. The rookie is supposed to watch, learn, assist if needed, and eventually incorporate this thinking into their own reasoning framework.
The verdicts in the trials of Lane, Kueng and Thao demonstrate that society will no longer accept this blind trust in the ways of the old guard. Rookies are clearly expected to speak up when they see something they know or think is wrong, even when the objectionable actions are the work of the person who has been designated as their mentor, teacher, and evaluator. If new cops are penalized for doing this, the word will spread, and the paradigm will return to the old model. More rookie officers will be hazarded by juries who do not understand and will not accept the socialization process of cops.
Police performance: Developing a culture of accountability
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One possible remedy is already available. The Office of Community Policing Services, a function of the U.S. Department of Justice, is championing the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) Project. ABLE is a training program developed by the Georgetown University Law Center, with roots in the Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC) peer intervention program developed at the New Orleans Police Department.
ABLE advocates 10 standards for agency participation, including dedicated coordination and accountability. This is not a “one and done” in-service program that is forgotten soon after the class breaks for the day. Everyone in the agency, from the chief of police or sheriff to the newest rookie is mandated to participate. There is periodic follow-through to ensure that the program has not faded into memory. Also required is an accountability component to protect officers who do intervene when needed, so that they will not be punished or ostracized by acting.
The creators of the training program are not naïve and understand the dynamics encountered when one strong-willed officer is confronted by another seeking to shut him down or ease off in a tense situation. Using a system of “distract, delegate, and direct,” interventionists can defuse a situation without causing the antagonist to lose face.
The ABLE Project is built on a “train the trainer” model, where instructors become trained and certified, then present the instruction to the members of their agency. Instructor training is offered in a virtual online format or in person, and instructors are encouraged to train other nearby agencies that may not have their own instructors. The FBI National Academy Associates organization offers some “at large” instructors who may be able to assist in training.
For the sake of society as a whole and the fraternity of cops, we have to teach rookies how to tell when something is being done incorrectly and to speak up when it happens. I don’t envy anyone charged with doing this task.