Confessions of a Field Training Officer, Part 1

We change—we all change. I’ve changed. I’m better now than I was three decades ago. This is what I sometimes think about as I sit at my home office desk, writing training bulletins for Lexipol, reflecting on my career as a police field training officer, training program coordinator and training program supervisor. If only I knew then what I know now, I would have been better. This is probably something you’ve thought to yourself as well.

This isn’t about guilt. I’m not trying to forgive myself for anything. I’m quite proud of the officers I trained and what they’ve been able to accomplish since passing in and out of the patrol cars I occupied. Our training office included two seats, a windshield, a steering wheel, a radio and—in time—a Mobile Data Computer (which made life so much easier). We operated in the system we were provided, recognizing it as well as a fish recognizes water. We always did the best we could with what we were provided—me agonizing over how I could get my trainee to a place where I felt comfortable saying he or she would be “good to go” on the street; them struggling to comprehend and apply all the complexities of policing a busy, urban, high-crime city with a reputation for toughness.

Two years into my career, I was drafted by a tough-as-nails on the outside (but soft-as-marshmallow on the inside, once you got to know him) lieutenant who, for reasons I still can’t explain, thought I was a “good cop.” Two years in, I was still trying to figure out effective application of Terry v. Ohio, among many other things. But because the lieutenant needed field training officers, he looked around for people he thought were good cops. This makes sense, but if I knew then that being a “good cop” and being a “good teacher” were two completely separate (although arguably complementary) things, I would have taken a dramatically different approach to the job.

Naturally, I went to the requisite Field Training Officer (FTO) school, where I learned basic information about teaching, evaluation and vicarious liability. Literally, that’s all I remembered about FTO school: Fill out your evaluations, do it in a timely manner, and if your trainee messes up, know that you can be sued (try not to let your trainee screw up). What I don’t remember learning about was the concept of “learning”—that is, how adults learn and how I might be able to affect that. If only I knew then what I know now.

Everything was going along swimmingly. Right up until he accidentally shot himself on-duty as I stood directly next to him.

And then I was assigned my first trainee. I was doing a great job! I found that I was a natural trainer. I taught, I evaluated, I was a role model. Everything was going along swimmingly. Right up until he accidentally shot himself on-duty as I stood directly next to him. OK, he didn’t actually shoot himself … or maybe it would be more accurate to say he didn’t actually shoot himself.

All I was trying to do was introduce him to the local pawn shop and its owners, with whom I’d appropriately developed a professional relationship. They were happy to show my trainee their gun safe. Who would have thought they would accidentally leave a round chambered in the .22 caliber semi-auto pistol the owner thought he’d show off? And how was I to know my trainee would immediately violate firearm safety rules 1 and 2 (“Treat all guns as if they are loaded” and “Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire”)? Well, remember “vicarious liability”? Especially that part about “don’t let your trainee screw up”? I never forgot that lesson.

By the way, my trainee was fine. The gun discharged into the gun safe and the bullet fragmented. He was hit with a small fragment in his thigh, but was otherwise uninjured. We were allowed to continue working together and I didn’t even lose my FTO position, although I never took my trainees back to the pawn shop. Thereafter, I found it was enough to simply drive by and point it out. For some reason, after passing the pawn shop, our conversation would always turn to a review of basic firearms safety rules.

It was rare the lessons I learned impacted me like that unexpected shot. Typically, they came far too late to do anything other than apply them to future assignments. Maybe that’s true with all learning, but my education was slow to develop. It came mostly through life experience and some rudimentary coaching from lieutenants and other mentors. Only much later, when I invested a significant amount of time reading, observing and reflecting, was I able to identify the lessons from these experiences.

This leads me to confess that I’m confident I made every mistake possible in the decades I spent as a police field training officer. Although I probably made several garden-variety, single-incident errors, those aren’t the ones I’m talking about here. My confession concerns more fundamental blunders—thinking I was a “teacher,” an “evaluator” and a “role model” when a trainee accompanied me. At the time, I considered this role ambiguity “being flexible.” Perhaps it was a form of situational leadership, an adaptation to what I believed the trainee—or the organization—needed from me at any given time.

In hindsight, this was an essential flaw in my training paradigm. You might be thinking, “That’s what training officers do—they teach, they evaluate, they serve as role models. These aren’t flaws, that’s how we do business!” Clearly, I felt that way for many years. Now I know there’s a different, perhaps better, approach.

Before we get to that, we need to explore the advantages and disadvantages of the teacher, evaluator and role model mindsets. And that will be the subject of my next article, as we continue to explore my evolution as an educator in Part 2.

Roger Buhlis

ROGER BUHLIS is a Law Enforcement Training Content Developer for Lexipol. He worked as an officer and sergeant for 26 years before retiring in 2012. Roger continues to teach policing professionals and has 30 years of experience training and teaching. In retirement, Roger earned a master’s degree in Adult Education in 2015.

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