Being a Field Training Officer (FTO) is one of the most important assignments for which an officer can volunteer. Unfortunately, some officers also “get volunteered,” which is not the best way to select FTOs. Field training officers have the single most important impact on how an agency will be received by the community they serve. They are responsible for shaping the character of new officers who will be working for an agency for the next 20 to 30 years.
FTOs have a tremendous impact on new officers. Most likely, a recruit’s FTO will be the first opportunity he or she will have to spend lots of time with an actual police officer. Recruits will observe how the FTOs deal with the public and other officers, how they carry themselves, what officer safety measures they take, and much more. Ask anyone who has been an officer for 15 years or longer and, for better or worse, they will almost certainly still remember their FTOs.
Over the past several years the economy has affected many aspects of life, including law enforcement agencies. News of agencies laying off officers has been widespread. Police departments have been forced to provide the same level and quality of services with fewer staff and resources. Remaining officers have had to pick up additional duties to cover for the laid-off officers.
As I am talking to FTO managers throughout the country, I have recently noticed that the trend of laying off officers is starting to reverse. Agencies are starting to hire again, and some of them can’t get recruits fast enough. Having to rapidly hire recruits can have a positive or negative effect on an agency’s FTO program and its management. Smaller departments with fewer FTOs, have to utilize them many times, often spread over many continuous months.
Many of these FTO coordinators have had to cancel or deny leave requests to their FTOs because they were needed to train recruits. This is hardly a way to motivate your FTOs to continue to provide excellent training. One might think that working for a larger police department would afford the FTO coordinator the luxury of always having plenty of FTOs to choose from; thereby avoiding the burnout that FTOs from smaller departments often face.
Working for a very large agency, I can say that this is not the case because of the recruit to FTO ratio. A smaller agency might only have 5 or so FTOs, but they might also train only one or two Recruits at a time. Larger agencies might have 50 ormore FTOs, but they also have recruit/trainee classes of 10 to 15. Thus both the smaller and larger agencies, each have approximately the same FTO/recruit ratio.
What causes an agency to have burned out FTOs? Being a police officer is a very stressful job, as evidenced by the enormous rates of divorce, suicide, and alcohol abuse as well as health problems such as high blood pressure and heart issues. Every officer, particularly the street cop, has to be constantly aware of numerous things while 10-8. Adding to the stress equation, the FTO is responsible for the young recruit sitting next to him/her while driving a patrol car around people that do not know how to drive themselves, listening to dispatch while running a tag on their computer allwhile looking for a suspect at the same time. Given this situation, not only is the training officer responsible for the recruit’s safety, but is also responsible for teaching the recruit to become a great officer.
Similar to the first few years on the job when you don’t even want days off, new FTOs are almost always eager to train recruits. However, this often changes after they have had several recruits, particularly if the recruits are placed in their charge in succession. Another burnout factor is if the FTO had a “problem recruit” that caused the FTO to frequently expend every ounce of patience he/she had over issues such as officer safety, report writing, radio procedures, etc.
When this is the case, the FTO manager often leans on their best FTOs. Every agency has one or two (maybe more if they are lucky) of “model FTOs”. These “model FTOs” are the cream of the crop. They are the ones with whom FTO managers place the “problem recruits.” Unfortunately, “problem recruits” require a tremendous amount of documentation. The FTO has to be very detailed in everything he/she does which can be very exhausting.
Recently, I had three FTOs assigned to my watch and all of them refused to train when they were asked by the FTO Coordinator for their availability to train incoming new recruits. Even before I asked them why they did not want to train, I knew the answer. They were exhausted, stressed, and did not feel appreciated by the higher powers of the department. Two of them actually handed their FTO pins back and advised me that they no longer wanted to be FTOs.
So how do we avoid FTO burnout? There are many factors that come into play that will vary based on the agency’s rules, policies, and procedures, as well as the flexibility given to someone running the FTO program. First, one needs to be aware of the signs of burnout. If the FTOs behavior changes when the news come out that there are new recruits to be trained or if the FTO has always some excuse not to train (i.e. I am out of town, getting married…..again, and my cat might die) these might be signs of burnout.
Another sign could be that you have a FTO that usually provides you with superb documentation (detailed daily observation reports, etc.) and he/she suddenly does the minimum required. It is extremely important for a FTO supervisor to pay attention to these burnout warning signs. If you notice that one of your FTOs has been training non-stop for months, speak with him/her and get honest feedback.
If at all possible, FTOs should rotate from new recruit training so that they can have a break and recharge. A good ration could be training for one month and then take off the next.
Talk to your FTOs and guide them. Make sure to let them know that not only you, but your agency and the citizens of the community they are serving, appreciate that they are taking on this extra responsibility. Tell them that they have a great impact on where their agency will head over the next few decades.
If you are in charge of your agency’s FTO program, find ways to reward and motivate your FTOs. If this can’t be done with financial incentives, maybe active FTOs can get first dibs at new computers, patrol cars, or a particular law enforcement class that they want to attend. Some agencies put “Field Training Officer” on the FTOs patrol car in large letters as a sign of recognition. There are no rules on how to motivate your FTOs. As a manager, do the best you can. Most of all, watch for the signs of burnout.
Bryan Selzer, MCJ is an active FTO 1st Sergeant for a large metropolitan police department and has received his BA and MS in criminal justice. He is the CEO of International Business Information Technologies, Inc., a company specializing in software for first responders and the developer of the Law Enforcement Field Training Application software (L.E.F.T.A. Systems), the web-based FTO software used by agencies throughout the nation. He can be contacted via email at [email protected] or the company website at www.leftasystems.org.