Managing the Dynamic of the FTO/Trainee In-Field Relationship police car lights at night

Officer Phillip White
San Jose Police Department
Field Training Program Administrative Officer



Having been an FTO, serving as the Administrative Officer of San Jose’s Field Training Program, and having the opportunity to teach the Field Training Officer Basic Course, I will pose these questions. Is the trainee your friend? Is the trainee your subordinate? Is the trainee your responsibility? Do you treat your trainee like he or she is your adult child?  What is your relationship with your trainee? 

As field training officers, are we effectively navigating and managing that dynamic that exists in the two-person car where only one person has any idea of what is really going on?  Yes, the trainee’s time in the program is a factor, as is the trainee’s prior experience, upbringing, and education. But I will argue that as seasoned FTOs, and sometimes as new FTOs, we pigeon hole ourselves into a method and mode of training and teaching that is inflexible and ineffective.  Establishing guidelines, ground rules, and boundaries as to how you are going to run your car is essential. It is the key to not only the safe and policy-directed operation of the car but to dictating behavior and relationship dynamics that inherently exist between the FTO and trainee.  

I got into his car; second rotation, swing shift, FTO George Beattie.  I started to pull out and he stopped me. “Where are you going?” he asked.  “10-8,” I replied. He proceeded to ask me the Department’s shooting policy.  I recited it flawlessly and off we went. He set the ground rules. He showed me, through that one simple training question, that he cared about me and was responsible for me.  He set the guideline that I too would be responsible for my actions, for knowing policy and for backing him up if needed. His question announced how his car was going to run and defined the nature of our relationship while I was in it; it would be by the book, professional, straight forward and safe.

As FTOs, we have to not only address the relationship dynamic at the outset of a training cycle, rotation or phase but must continually evaluate and adjust our methods for managing it.  The professional and firm “supervisor-subordinate” relationship is likely the most appropriate and effective model, particularly at the beginning of training. However, as new trainees learn the foundation of the job and start to spread their professional wings through gained knowledge and experience, I would implore you to assess your approach in order to get the most out of the trainee.  Allow the professional relationship to grow or change in a healthy manner more resembling a peer relationship.  

Of course, this is on a case-by-case basis, but generally speaking, there is a higher likelihood of trainee success as FTO stress is reduced later in training.  I am not suggesting friendship or cutting corners and devaluing training. On the contrary, I want there to be a conversation, internal or external, regarding the maturity of the trainee and his or her ability to respond to a change in training pedagogy. While they are new to the profession, they are still adults.  There is no crime or shame in adding a modicum of humanity to your teaching and training methodology. In fact, we insist on it.  

The interactions and experiences you have with your trainee will not only start but will build relationships and create memories that likely they and you will never forget.  Your trainees will remember you and their other FTOs and be able to pass on stories to their trainees when the time comes.  

George toned it down after a couple of weeks and we developed a professional, if not cordial rapport. He retired as a lieutenant and went to work at another agency. I saw George 22 years later at a retiree’s funeral and I introduced him to my Honor Guard Team.  As we all stood reminiscing, I started to tell my team the story of our first day together in FTO Beattie’s car. As soon as I said I started to drive out of the parking spot, George adeptly interjected at just the point he had originally asked me, “What’s the shooting policy?” FTOs don’t forget their trainees either and managing the in-car relationship between the trainee and the FTO will make things easier, will prove to have a positive impact on the new officer’s training and will aid in the development of professional relationships and memories that will last a lifetime.