My FTO made all the difference in preparing me for the street.
In 1992, several months shy of my 21st birthday, I entered the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynn County, Georgia. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was gearing up for a bootcamp-style, in-your-face yelling and cursing, grabbing-you-by-the-shirt-collar drill instructor to whip the recruits into shape. What I experienced was totally different. The FLETC instructors treated recruits like adults. I breezed through a nine-week basic training course and was amped to be unleashed to demonstrate my law enforcement prowess to the world. Little did I know, my duties after graduating from FLETC consisted of checking government ID cards and flagging in vehicles all day. Needless to say, my career as a federal police officer was short lived.
I joined the Prince George’s County Maryland Police Academy in 1994. And the very first day of training had me wondering what I was thinking. The instructors were spitting images of the barrel-chested, frowny-faced, beady-eyed, fire-breathing soldiers that I imagined would be barking out orders during my FLETC training. From the very start, instructors pushed us to the limits. I did more running, push-ups, sit-ups and burpees those first couple of weeks than I’d ever done in my entire life.
Every scenario during training seemed like a no-win situation. The simplest call for service involving an elderly woman needing her tire changed resulted in bad guys jumping out from the woman’s vehicle and pointing shotguns in our faces. I understood why they had to train us that way. The instructors were giving us the worst, so we would be prepared to face the worst.
After six months of torturous training, the recruits who survived were introduced to their field training officers, also known as FTOs. These were to be our mentors as we transitioned from school to the street. And frankly speaking, I was not impressed with mine. To my young mind, he was a low-key dinosaur — probably two days shy of his 50th year in the department. After six months of nerve-racking training, I was ready to have a mentor who would show me the action.
I was assigned to work the graveyard shift, and I had already made up my mind that I was going to be a ball of fire from the start. My FTO wouldn’t be able to hold me back.
Our very first call was to handle a car accident on a busy highway. My adrenaline was pumping as my FTO got word from the dispatcher. He told me to watch how he handled the call and how he interacted with the drivers.
One of the drivers was frantic. She had been rear-ended by the other vehicle and was screaming at the top of her lungs. My first thought was to demand that she keep quiet to allow us to figure things out. If she resisted, we’d have her restrained in an instant. But my FTO wasn’t showing his authority that way. He calmly spoke with her, letting her know that the other driver was at fault.
To my surprise, his calm approach instantly brought the driver down and de-escalated the situation. He got the information he needed for the accident report and instructed both drivers to move their vehicles out of the roadway, which they did without incident.
I remember he turned to me, my eyes wide, jaw dropped. “You can holster your weapon now,” he joked.
My FTO went on to explain that I would have to learn how to put 90% of the training that was pounded into my head in the academy into context in order to do well in this job. He assured me that a very small percentage of police work required the use of an officer’s handgun. “You have to work with people and communicate with them,” he told me. And while I didn’t want to hear about communicating with people — that didn’t line up with the adrenaline rush I was looking for — it became apparent that effectively communicating was key to solving problems and staying safe while doing it.
I was assigned to ride with my FTO for three months. In the beginning, I was skeptical. I thought I would regret every second of it. But I was fortunate to have an experienced FTO who took the time to explain each situation to me and allow me the opportunity to learn how to police effectively, with listening, patience and curiosity — tools that I have since passed on to rookie officers once I had the opportunity to train.
The truth of the job is that 90% of calls are routine — people comply, you fill out the paperwork, nothing dramatic happens. While you need to be ready for those 10% that could go sideways, you also need to be equipped with common sense and the ability to communicate. This way, you don’t turn something routine into something dangerous just because you are primed to expect the worst. Field training officers are an essential mentorship piece of law enforcement training and why a good FTO makes all the difference.