For a few years, I was an acting FTO for probationary police officers (PPO). For those not familiar with the police term an FTO is a field training officer. My responsibility was to take the new officer fresh from the academy and train them to work the street. To do it well is not always an easy job.
I had a regular partner but when the captain asks you to train someone, you say, yes sir. He’d been very good to me and he was now short FTOs but not PPOs. So, I became an FTO. My PPOs ran the gamut from very good to not quite so good. Some I knew would make great coppers and with others, I worried. I worried about both the officers and the citizens. It wasn’t always for what you might imagine.
My FTO put me behind the wheel on my second day and I drove the rest of my time with him. He said it was the best way to learn the streets. He was right. I tried this for a while. I had to change my program after one special PPO.
An Army veteran with an education. He understood the job and was pretty good with people on the street. This PPO’s only problem was driving. I knew he was going to kill me in a collision. We would be driving down the street and he was at the wheel. If he was talking to me he had to turn his head and look at me while he spoke. This wasn’t a simple flick of his head and then back to concentrating on his driving, no he kept looking at me as he spoke. These weren’t yes and no answers or short questions. He might be telling me his opinion on world events. In doing so, he kept his eyes glued to me. He never looked back to the street just at me as he spoke.
To try to motivate him I stressed how important it was to scan the streets as he drove. I told him he was missing a lot. For instance, he never noticed the look of abject fear on my face as we headed towards the double-parked cars at forty miles an hour. My sons were young, so I decided to increase the odds of my survival and I began to drive every other day.
Another PPO was fresh out of college. He’d grown up in a nice comfortable suburban community. The city was as new to him as he was to it. A big, tall, strapping fellow, you knew he was a good show of force when you need to look tough. He could stand there at 6’4” with a mean look on his face and intimidate most people. Unfortunately, not all people were intimidated by him and he didn’t realize it at that time. Once we were asked by the E/R staff at our local hospital to help get a man to leave. He had been treated for whatever ailed him and was told he had to leave. It was a cold night out and I imagine he had nowhere to go. He told them he wasn’t going to leave.
Now he could have gone and sat in the waiting room and blended in with the other people out there, but he wanted to stay on his gurney in the treatment area. I took one look at this guy and saw him for what he was. This was a man who had been beaten by life and by his fellow man. He was determined, and it showed. I told him he had to leave. His response was to inform me I could go have sex with myself.
The PPO heard this and immediately puffed up his chest and stood his tallest. Like a grizzly bear, he was showing his size to intimidate the man. The man took one look at the PPO and laughed. This caused the PPO to puff up even more and to move in even closer as his cheeks began to redden.
The man continued to tell me he wasn’t going to leave. I explained to him the usual, he was going one way or another, the choice was his. Life had defecated on him and he needed a win. He was willing to take a beating to get it. I was sure this was a man who had done time in prison and had lived on the streets fighting with the dogs for every scrap. He had nothing to lose and a beat down didn’t mean anything to him. He’d had worse than this big college kid could dish out.
He traded witticisms with me for a while and all the time my PPO stood there trying to physically intimidate him. He would periodically look at the recruit and chuckle. Finally, he agreed to leave on one condition. I had to explain to the PPO what was going on. I agreed, and the man turned and walked out of the hospital into the cold.
We went for coffee after that job. I sat there and tried to explain to the PPO that he had failed to intimidate the man because there was nothing that he could have done to the guy that hadn’t already been done. The man needed to feel he had some control of his life and I allowed him to make the choice to leave. Though it took a while, the PPO eventually learned there are people that can take your star and shove it where it won’t shine. Not everyone needed brute force. He learned to read the people he was dealing with.
One item I always strove to teach any PPO was an attitude. I remember all too many officers getting upset with a traffic violator. They acted personally insulted by the violation. I took a while to learn that it wasn’t my stop sign that the driver just ignored, and it wasn’t an insult to me that they were late on that red light. My hope was that PPOs took this lesson with them when they left me.
I always hoped that my PPOs learned something from me other than how to stretch out a lunch break or get an extra coffee break. I learned much from my FTOs. They taught me things that remained with me throughout my career and allowed me to survive until my pension. They taught me an attitude that helped on the street and helped keep the stress down in my life at home.
Are you an FTO? Do you have something special you try to teach your officers? Please feel free to share that with all of us.
– Robert Weisskopf, police lieutenant (ret.), Chicago Police Department