Field training officers vary in size, demeanor, and experience level, but it is believed that they are the most important piece of the departmental puzzle, hands down.

Thomas Dworak, a retired sergeant from Wilmette (Ill.) Police Department, who is now an instructor with The Virtus Group, travels the country teaching something he calls the Adaptive FTO, and it’s a model that has been met with wide-ranging praise for its success.

An FTO works alongside the new recruit. (San Jose PD)

 

Sergeant Dworak makes a great case: “A reasonable argument can be made that the 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. Lifelong friendships are often made, and the sense of accomplishment at the sight of a young officer’s “lightbulb moment” is extraordinary.

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The Adaptive FTO concept addresses the instruction of a recruit from a different perspective than many other models, recognizing that the FTO role has to evolve as the demands put on officers has changed over the years.”

Thomas Dworak: Trainer of Trainers. (Twitter)

 

I’ve seen both the positive and negative impacts of training programs, depending on how they’re initiated, documented, and followed-through on.  The police field isn’t exclusive to structured programs like the FTO version – I’ve seen similar on-the-job (OJT) training programs or methods met with varied levels of success.  For example, my first experience in the deadly and dangerous industry of towing and recovery was a 3-minute “how-to” session on how the controls of the truck worked, and then the boss threw me the keys and told me we had a police-generated accident call.  I went into that police call without the slightest clue about physics, geometry, weight distribution, and technique, and of course, tore the heck out of a car that hadn’t been that badly damaged before I touched it. 

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The same idea can be seen as an analogy of police training. The more actual instruction time and continual hands-on work with a good trainer or supervisor, the better the trainee is prepared to handle tasks and encounters without being blindsided. It’s that moment of lack of knowledge, or cluelessness, that gets many new officers into trouble – and in many cases, costs them their careers or lives, bringing discredit and sadness on the department and the career field as a whole.

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Dworak makes some great points in his training curriculum. “If we look at how field training has evolved over time, a lot of check boxes, a lot of forms, a lot of policies — but we don’t do the job that way. You know, an incident may happen and all of a sudden, we don’t have a policy, or a rule, or a form to cover it. [Through] the Adaptive FTO method, what we do is train the FTOs to have an adaptive philosophy in problem-solving, decision-making, communication, and to train the recruits in there,” Dworak said in an interview.

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“We primarily make decisions, but if you look at the way some of the FTO models are set up, you’ve got a checkbox for making decisions, but you might have three boxes to cover radio usage and three boxes for writing reports. But that decision-making component and communication in terms of how we interact with each other are far more important than how we talk on a radio and how we write reports.”

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So many career fields “throw people to the wolves” or give them a “baptism by fire” and thrust a person into a stressful situation without the proper training, or the ability to access information or supervisory support on the fly.  I can think of many people who were thrown into the proverbial creek and made to sink or swim.  The difference is that a new waiter or server might get your food order wrong, or a new towing and recovery person might damage your car – but a new police officer making a bad call might cost someone, or themselves, their life.

 

Sergeant Dworak has outstanding ideas.  I, too, feel that initial and recurring training is the very backbone of police work.  You may not spring for an expert to come in and give your people a formal training program, but at the very least, evaluate your current program, compare it to others, and most importantly, interview your newer people on the things they wish they’d known when they first started – and incorporate those things into your field training program.

 

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