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FTOs and department culture: It always comes back to training

One of the most overlooked aspects when it comes to law enforcement culture is how officers are trained within the organization

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“There is no one thing the defines an organization’s culture. Leadership, communication, and policies all play vital roles in shaping culture. One often overlooked but crucial aspect is training.”

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Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While the statement was intended for the private sector, it’s extremely relevant for law enforcement agencies where the impact of department culture can be seen every day.

There is no one thing the defines an organization’s culture. Leadership, communication, and policies all play vital roles in shaping culture.

One often overlooked but crucial aspect is training.

What you teach and how you teach officers is the foundation on which your organization’s culture is built. Training sets the tone for what is expected of officers in their role, as well as how they receive corrective feedback, how accountable they are and, maybe most importantly, the connection they feel to the department’s mission and values.

Nowhere is this more evident than in your FTO program.

FTO & Organization Culture

Ret. Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell recently said “an FTO has a greater impact on the future of policing than any other single part of the culture.”

Here are five ways your FTO program can be a culture-changer for your agency.

1. FTO sets the tone

FTO programs are the introduction of an officer’s journey into your agency … and you don’t get a second chance at a first impression.

Officers will learn more by observing their Field Training Officer than they will from any direct instruction. How does the FTO interact with the public? With other officers? How do they embody the values and mission of the organization?

None of this is in the program curriculum, but it drives straight to the heart of department culture. It shows, firsthand, what it means to be an officer at your agency. These are lessons they will carry with them their entire career.

2. Mentorship and mental health

With the increase in officers choosing to retire or resign, a hole has been created with not enough experienced officers to mentor younger officers.

While it’s unfair to expect every FTO to be a mentor to every officer they train, there are important lessons on how to be prepared for the long haul that can be built into the program.

One key area is around your agency’s wellness programs and mental health. The ability to last in this profession goes beyond learning procedure and protocol. Officers need to learn how to care for themselves, their health and their career.

Your department likely has wellness programs to help in these areas. Prioritizing these as a part of your training program helps destigmatize the negative connotations toward utilizing mental health resources.

For as much as you talk about them from a leadership perspective, seeing it directly from the FTO and removing the stigma around seeking help could make the difference between officer burnout and retention years down the road.

3. Identify problems early

As difficult as it is to recruit officers, it can be tempting to lower standards just to help ease the burden.

But an important aspect of FTO programs should be to identify problems early in an officer’s tenure. It’s much less costly to deal with issues upfront than wait for a significant problem to arise.

At a minimum, any problems should be clearly documented, addressed with the officer directly, and steps put in place to address the concern. This way, if the issue reappears down the road, you have the documentation to help protect the agency.

This also has a significant impact on culture. If officers can’t “cut it,” or if they continue to model behavior counter to agency values, their peers understand that this is not the cultural norm or acceptable conduct. Like an untended wound, over time it will begin to fester and start rotting away at department culture.

4. The heart of a teacher

Finding the right leaders to be FTOs may be the single most important – and challenging – part of building culture. You need officers with the right combination of experience, know-how, leadership, and desire to be your FTOs – no small feat.

But this is an area you can’t short-change.

Invest in your FTOs. Continue to evaluate them as training officers and make sure they see it as a privilege and not just another step toward promotion. Find officers who embody the type of culture you want to build.

Just because an officer has been on the force for a certain amount of time or is a strong leader in other areas, doesn’t always mean they will be a good trainer.

5. Role of technology

Too often we think technology is a silver bullet, but there isn’t any software in the world that can teach you how to be a good cop.

However, technology can play a pivotal role in both an effective FTO program, as well as your department culture.

The easier you make it for officers to do their jobs – whether that’s filling out paperwork, responding to calls, or even accessing your internal systems and information – the easier it will be for them to do their jobs.

That may sound obvious, but too often we put up barriers that slow officers down and create small frustrations along the way.

Technology can simplify repetitive, menial tasks, and let FTOs focus on training – not adding more hassle on top of their regular work.

But it also helps officers going through FTO. The experiences they have and their interpretation of how easy (or difficult) your systems are will leave a lasting impression – coloring their opinion for better or worse.

In sum

Simply applying one or two of these methods cannot change something as significant as agency culture. However, taking the small steps results in achieving huge gains.

For most of us, we can’t put our finger on any one thing to say why we think the way we do about our jobs, our coworkers, or the organization we work for. It’s a feeling we have deep down.

Knowing this, focusing on the little things and investing for the long run, you will see how you can move the needle on your department culture. Over time, you will see the impact on retention, morale, how you live out your mission and, who knows, maybe even on your own satisfaction.