Thought Leadership

The Role of Field Training Officers on Culture and Reputation

We are all living through a period of dramatic change and change is often the source of great anxiety. That seems evident in our lives today. Policing has recently been at the center of our society’s call for change.

Policing is clearly in a different place today than it was a few short years ago. As a result, field training is not the same as it was either. How new officers are recruited, trained, and mentored can have a tremendous impact on the culture and reputation of an agency and the future of policing as a profession. 

A reasonable argument can be made that the enduring 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

FTO programs are the beginning of an officer’s journey into an agency; they set the tone for an agency’s culture and reputation. Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Los Angeles County Sheriff (retired)  believes, “an FTO has a greater impact on the future of policing than any other single part of the culture.” 

It doesn’t matter to the public how much training or experiences an officer has had - once they put on the badge they are expected to perform. Some experts, like McDonnell, are concerned with training potentially changing so much, in such a short period. Given the current trend lines, the crime profile five years from now could potentially look a lot like it did in the late 60s and early 70s, with a very high crime rate. It is critical that we plan for what we will face in the future. That is essentially the definition of training.

THE ROLE OF THE FTO ON RECRUITING AND RETENTION

In the past two years, many agencies have experienced a major exodus of officers eligible for retirement and those who decide mid-career that this is no longer for them. This creates a void as those who would have been future leaders within the department are gone. With new positions opening, officers entering the force for the first time are receiving their training during a period of great transition. 

Are we satisfied that we are providing them with the tools, tactics, and practices to make them successful during these very challenging times? During times like these, there is a tendency to pull back and take a more tentative and cautious approach to policing. 

“You can end up with mediocrity being the standard to which we aspire, which is not good for anyone,” says McDonnell. 

If we allow to mediocrity become the expectation, the potential impact on the culture of an agency could last many years and through several generations of law enforcement officers. Additionally, with recruitment becoming increasingly more difficult, current law enforcement officers have been taking on more responsibilities, potentially impacting an agency’s ability to perform their core functions well. 

With the many challenges present today, officers are continuously being asked to do more with less. Cops experience situations on the street every day that result in chronic exposure to trauma, which ultimately leads to burnout, stress-related illness, and mental health issues. The biggest investment law enforcement leaders can make is investing in our officers and investing in the right technology and programs that can support them most effectively. 

Is there a way that FTO programs can spot an officer experiencing difficulties at an early stage? McDonnell shares that “the FTO can be critical in identifying PTSD and other mental health issues.” Laying the groundwork early in an officer’s career, with a strong FTO program that includes mental health training, can help law enforcement officers manage chronic stress more effectively.

FTO programs impact the culture and reputation of agency. The way new law enforcement officers are trained sets the tone for how they will train the next generation. Field training programs are the most critical within an agency. It is the only program that can lead to a transformational change from within and create a department that is professional, ethical, and oriented to meet the common good of society. 

FTO programs are critical for socializing new employees into the core values and principles of the organization and the profession. It is one of the most direct and effective ways to create transformational change within a policing organization.

Future of FTO

We know that the FTO helps to drive an agency’s culture by guiding the behavior of officers in the field, but how can an FTO also help bring the right quality candidates into your agency by impacting recruitment, retention, and attrition? 

Building on that, how can an FTO help foster the brotherhood and sisterhood of policing by nurturing a candidate who is interested in law enforcement to become truly passionate about serving their community, ensuring future success, and upholding your agency’s reputation?

When asked if there is a way to make sure best practices are being followed across the country’s 18,000 agencies, McDonnell’s response was “it is a time of tremendous opportunity.” There are plenty of ways through the FTO program to do things right in the beginning and build upon that. 

As field training programs have evolved and changed over the years to meet different standards and approaches, it begs the question: is there a permanent space for technology to complement FTO programs? According to Police1, “An efficient and effective field training system not only puts recruit officers in the best position for success, it also minimizes the possibility of poor or negligent retention and may decrease the likelihood of agency liability due to training or documentation mistakes.”

If you train a new officer to be a professional, ethical officer today, where will they be tomorrow? Maybe they will become an FTO themselves, training the next generation. Perhaps they will be a line supervisor ensuring that a squad of officers conduct themselves in an ethical manner. Maybe they will become an administrator continuing to make the necessary changes in the department for the betterment of the community.”

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