How Field Training Officers Influence Police Department Culture

A police department is essentially a small community. Departments are predisposed to sharing ideas, norms, attitudes, ethics, and values. Some may value proactivity and arrests, while other departments may value community action and non-enforcement contacts.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are approximately 18,000 separate law enforcement agencies in the United States. Of that number, roughly 12,000 are classified as local police departments, and the most common type is the small-town police department with 10 or fewer officers.

When you consider the diversity in geography and demographics in the United States, when coupled with the jurisdictional differences in laws, it’s easy to posit that each of those departments embodies its own unique culture. This diversity can even be observed in differences between departments that share jurisdictional borders.

Research shows that many of these cultural values can be rooted in jurisdictional concerns: inner-city departments can often be too busy to prioritize community policing actions and affluent bedroom communities may frown on their police department being aggressively proactive.

Considering the above, the question then becomes: How does this unique culture propagate and develop? While some may insist the command staff sets the tone, or the senior officers control the mood, a deeper consideration should be paid towards how a department’s Field Training Officers (FTOs) influence that department’s culture.

Roots of Police Department Culture

The main engine of any police department is the patrol division. Despite the wide-eyed dreams of some recruits who’s only desire in life is to be a detective, every officer will first cut their teeth in patrol. Similarly, every department chief, major, captain, lieutenant, etc. on down started their career as a wide-eyed new officer in the patrol division.

On that first day, each new officer reports to work full of academy knowledge and excitement. As many senior officers put it, brand new police officers amount to little more than children; they require constant supervision, and they will invariably mess things up.

While cynical, this idea is not terribly far from the reality that police academies prepare recruits with knowledge of laws, procedures, and tactics. What the newly minted officer lacks is experience applying that academy knowledge to real situations involving real people. The truth of the matter is that police academies are inherently limited in the variety of situations they can put recruits in; real life is just infinitely more variable. Add in the fact that real life has no ‘safety time-outs’ and the limitations become quite clear.

To cover this gap, each newly minted police officer becomes the ward of a department FTO (or several depending on department policy). It is the sole job of the FTO to guide each new officer in transferring academy knowledge into ‘street knowledge’.

Psychology of Field Training Programs

In his groundbreaking 1977 research on child development, psychologist Albert Bandura developed a study he called Social Learning Theory. Developed as a bridge between Cognitive Learning theory and Behavioral Learning theory, Social Learning theory posits that children develop behaviors by studying and imitating models (in this case, adults).

Though pioneered by researching children, Social Learning theory is just as applicable to any learning environment. It is, after all, the basis behind On-The-Job training programs and most recently evident in the dramatic trend towards learning how to accomplish tasks by watching a video on YouTube.

Social Learning theory is also evident in FTO programs, of which virtually the entire point is to pair a new officer with an experienced officer. So the new officer can watch the senior officer and do what they do.

The crux of the socialization aspect is that this learning process is not restricted to simple procedures and paperwork.

FTOs: Do As They Say And As They Do

In her research on FTO programs, criminologist Allison Chappell noted that new officers were just as likely to mimic their FTOs attitudes and mannerisms as they were their job performance. Through observing their FTO, new officers learn how to interact with other officers, how to address administration, what job-related tasks new officers should focus on and what they should be doing during the periods between calls for service.

Additionally, the new officer will be closely watching how the FTO acts as an individual and as a member of the department. Going back to Social Learning theory, new officers are virtual sponges, attempting to mold themselves into a near-replica of their FTO.

Further, in his 2014 study of the relationship between FTO’s and future police misconduct, certified law enforcement officer and psychologist Dr. Ryan Getty noted that FTO’s teach their trainees according to that particular FTO’s perception of the best course of action. Additionally, FTOs would teach their trainees what policies were important and what policies could be “stretched”; the implication is that FTOs also model a certain degree of acceptable deviance to their trainees.

The conclusion should be clear; FTOs are almost entirely responsible for modeling every aspect of how to be a police officer in that department. The FTO will single-handedly enculturate the new officer to the norms of their respective department, and by extension, set the foundation for that officer’s entire career.

As MIT professor and renowned police researcher, John Van Maanen notes, the FTO phase of a new officer’s career is the singular point where they are most receptive to attitude changes. Once an officer becomes ‘experienced’ the remainder of their career will pass through the lens created during their first year on the job.

In light of this, department administration should take great care in selecting their FTOs based on the values they wish their department to embody. Based on the aforementioned theory, rookie officers will attempt to replicate their FTO’s as the model of what a successful officer in that department should look like. Most importantly, both positive and negative traits will survive the replication.

Negative Cultural Traits Passed on by FTO’s

Going back to Chappell’s research on FTO programs, she discovered that the key to a successful transition to a more community-focused strategy rested with that department’s FTOs. After analyzing a large metropolitan police department, Chappell concluded that only FTOs who ‘bought-into’ the new program produced new officers with the same mindset. FTOs who simply agreed to the program, but did not actually apply it, produced officers with little concern towards community policing.

As we’ve discussed, each new officer becomes a replica of their FTO.

Even more disturbing, Dr. Getty’s research revealed that rookie officers received more citizen complaints after training with certain FTOs. Based on the collected data, the longer a new officer spent with these problematic FTOs, the more likely they were to receive citizen complaints. New officers who did not spend any time with these FTOs did not receive citizen complaints at nearly a comparable rate.

Your FTO’s Today Create the Command Staff of the Future

Based on this brief review of current research, it should be evident that not only departmental culture but also the perceptual understanding of each new officer, starts at the FTO level. New rookie officers are effectively blank, full of excitement and pervasive willingness to fit in. The research is clear: these blank slates will attempt to become a carbon copy of their FTO.

FTOs that strictly adhere to department policy and command guidance will produce officers that will do the same. On the other hand, FTOs who tell their rookies “don’t worry about that policy, it’s not important” convey the subtle message that deviance from department policy is acceptable “in the right circumstances”. Even more crucial, reaching back to Social Learning theory, FTOs who use force more often, or ‘conquer’ citizens as opposed to respectfully managing situations, will create officers who deeply embody the “Us vs. Them” mentality.

These new officers will eventually become senior officers, and possibly even command officers or Chiefs. The possibility also exists that these new officers will become FTOs themselves one day. At that point, they will teach rookie officers what their FTOs taught them.

Despite the desires of the command staff to the contrary, the cycle will continue and the culture will remain.