The Deeper Impact of FTO Programs on Department Culture

Consider all the components that go into making an individual law enforcement agency’s working culture. Policy, employee attitudes, social relationships, and a million other factors can all play into the creation, evolution, and perpetuation of this culture.

Among all of these, the impact of field training officers (FTOs) cannot be understated.

Think back to a trainer, supervisor, professional mentor, or similar person who played a meaningful role in your career.

While this person undoubtedly gave you job-specific skills, there is a strong chance they also played a direct role in how you feel about your job, the solutions you think of when challenges arise, your interactions with peers and the public, etc.

If not for them, you’d likely be a very different person on the clock.

In the current political climate, FTO programs are being rediscovered as a tool for reducing use of force and other misconduct within law enforcement agencies.  

FTOs are often in an ideal position to head off these sources of damaged public trust—be it through education, discipline, or even outright “weeding out” of officers who may have evaded screenings in the hiring process.

FTOs’ trickle-down effect is undeniable—and leaders can capitalize on it

Per the San Jose Police Department, FTOs have “the dual responsibility of providing police service in their assigned beats, as well as conducting training and evaluations for new officers. Field training sergeants are responsible for the supervision of all personnel assigned to their teams and for coordinating and supervising the on-the-job training of recruit officers.”

In other words, your average training officer should be trustworthy and experienced—the exact kind of person who should exhibit the cultural elements you wish to see in officers as they leave the academy and hit the streets.

We suggest no longer leaving to chance the culture that FTOs impart.

  1. The first step is to verbalize the exact behaviors and attitudes you wish to see removed, evolved, or addressed. This will vary by individual agency and will naturally require input from many parties, including recruits, seasoned officers, FTOs themselves, and the higher-level stakeholders who govern them.
  1. The next step is to be explicit in your directives—letting FTOs know in no uncertain terms that they are responsible for the good aspects of agency culture “trickling down.” By taking the time to outline your agency’s expectations (i.e. culture) and tell your officers exactly the traits they should embody in the FTO relationship, you take more aspects of your overall culture out of fate’s hands.

Selection and training matter more than ever

Naturally, you should also pay close attention to the processes by which FTOs are chosen, as well as the records, histories, and dispositions of your current crop.

  • Do the people handing down your training do the best job possible in exhibiting the right traits?
  • Do they have questionable histories regarding on-job violence or misconduct?

Questions like these can be essential in selecting the people who in turn form the bedrock of your culture.

Some FTOs may need simple remediation; in more toxic cultures, the FTOs responsible for propagating misconduct may need to be replaced by new FTOs trained in the ways of the desired culture. In either case, note any trainings given and any changes that result from them.

Training tools that help FTOs and supervisors get a good look at a recruit’s history can be very helpful in finding those that exemplify the culture you wish to establish—as well as the FTOs themselves. If your training management system (TMS) doesn’t allow you a whole-career, centralized view of every facet of an officer’s career with you, consider one that does.

FTO and misconduct: Conclusion

There is no silver bullet for cultural problems, nor is there an easy way to fully curb the effects of misconduct such as disproportionate use of force. However, FTO programs can be very helpful to orient your organization in the correct direction.

The trick is in getting the right people—and using the right tools to verify that you’re selecting the best people for your new culture.

Posted on Mar 25, 2021