FTO of the Year Interview

At our 2018 Conference in Shreveport, Louisiana, we proudly named Deputy Mark Benner as our FTO of the Year.  Mark was among numerous FTOs whose agencies supported by nominating them for this annual award.  Rather than try to replicate his well-written nomination in this article, I encourage you all to check it out here (Read the Nomination Now)  Instead, I caught up with Mark to get his thoughts about being a Field Training Officer and his award.  Here’s our back-and-forth discussion:

Paul Hasselberger: Receiving an award for being the FTO of the Year seems like pretty big deal.  Let’s start at the beginning: what made you want to be a FTO in the first place?

Mark Benner:  I wanted to have an impact and be a part of the future of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.  I knew the best way to direct our future was through teaching the future FTO’s and instructors of our agency.  If I am to promote someday, it will make my job easier knowing I instructed them the best I could have.

PH: I have to imagine that’s a pretty universal reason for getting involved with training new people coming into public safety, and it reminds me of a leadership quote, “if you no longer held your position, rank or status, would the people you’ve trained still choose to follow you?” So, how important is a relationship of trust in the field training world in regard to promoting learning and followers?

MB: That is a hard question to know for sure, but I feel like most people I have trained would still follow and/or come to me for advice. I believe that mutual trust and respect in a coach-pupil environment done right will foster relationships that will last forever. If you rule your car like a dictatorship and put up a hard line trainee-trainer relationship where it’s do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do, it is a turnoff and people will only respect your title or position, not you as an individual. This will cause you to lose your leadership ability for not only those you have trained,but for all the others who see it and hear about it.

PH: I think that used to be a big problem where FTOs viewed themselves as drill instructors.While I’m sure it still exist, I’ve seen newer FTOs much more comfortable filling the role as mentor/coach which can set a pretty positive environment for learning something as complex as patrol, correction or emergency medicine.  It also sets up a good foundation for a friendship among co-workers, too.  What do you think you do differently than other FTOs to establish this relationship?

MB: You know, I don’t know for sure because I cannot say I have ridden around with a lot of FTO’s now that I have been one. I can say that when I come to work, I am who I am and never try to pretend to be something or someone I am not. I work hard every day because I was taught to work hard as a young guy. In this line of work, I take that as being as safe as I can and being a productive deputy who is out there to protect and help the citizens of my county. But I just don’t feel like that is something I do different from other FTO’s because we should all be living like that.

PH: You’re obviously pretty honest too, because that was a terrible question. [laughs] Let me rephrase it a bit. If I asked your past trainees, what would they say you are known for? How would your trainees/peers/supervisors describe you?

MB: Being a down to earth, straight to the point person which at times can be a little abrasive, but everyone knows what I believe and what I stand for.

PH: I think that makes a great point because I could imagine someone reading this thinking your soft just because you’re not a drill instructor. You show that you can show up to work and be fair and unwavering, but a genuinely nice guy. It seems like you combined the best of both sides.  What do you think you’ve learned from going through the FTO process that you’ve made your own?

MB: Being alert and aware of your surroundings is more critical than constantly looking at license plate and driver statuses on the computer.  Looking up and around often leads to more and better contacts.

PH: Classic. It’s crazy that despite the advancements in technology and how much our profession has changed over the past few decades, simply paying attention is the best advice you can still give and receive.  Where else do you draw onto improve your training skills? Is there a book, podcast, article, movie, show has inspired you to be a better FTO?

MB: I don’t know, maybe “Smokey and the Bandit” because it’s a good reminder that you do not want to be Sheriff Buford T. Justice and having the charisma of the Bandit in doing this job goes a long ways with citizens in gaining compliance, support and your peers who look up to you. I also do enjoy watching “End of Watch”.  It’s a good reminder to stay sharp and always have a plan that also has a good back-up plan.

PH: [Laughing] I can say I didn’t expect that as a possible response, but I like your ability to see a lesson in there.  You could slow down a bit though,you’ve already earned this year’s award. 
We are all trainers, and know that not everything goes as planned in the FTO program. Can you share a story about a mishap that proves that even the FTO of the Year can have an “off-day”?

MB: Oh my, where do I even begin. I have seen a lot of strange things in my years of Field Training. I guess a funny would be after a short chewing of a trainee about not backing people up and how that relates to officer safety he observed  a city officer on a traffic stop and immediately did a U-turn in fairly dense traffic.  He almost caused a collision, then jumped this ramped curb into the parking lot where the traffic stop was happening. He hit that curb and launched us baja buggy style into the air and came screeching to a halt. The city trainee on the traffic stop was unaware of the bad aircraft landing approach but his FTO who watched the whole thing was amazed to learn the car was still on 4 inflated tires.  Needless to say, we had some remedial discussion of his Beau Duke driving style.

PH:  Oof! Was this before or after you required all your trainees to watch “Smokey and the Bandit”?! That makes for a bad day,which I’m sure we can all relate.  What else do you think FTOs around the country can relate to about being an FTO?What’s the hardest part about being an FTO?

MB: Riding in the passenger seat on graveyard after about 3 am [laughs]. There is some truth to that for sure, but the worst is spending dozens of hours conducting remedial training only to have the trainee give up or become subsequently terminated for failing to improve.

 PH: It goes back to what you said in the beginning, the whole reason you got into Field Training was to improve the performance of those around you. It can be frustrating when it just doesn’t work out.  Is the flip side of that the best part of being an FTO?

MB: Yeah, seeing deputies I have trained make a great name  for themselves through productivity and work product and become instructors and new FTO’s to the training unit.

PH: That is a great way to end it.  Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.  Any final words for the FTO community? Are you up to challenge the 2019 FTO of the Year to an arm wrestling contest at our 2019 Conference in Salt Lake City?

MB:You are most welcome, Paul! I am still taken back by not only being nominated,but also to receive this award.  It is an amazing feeling and greatly appreciated! Be safe and keep your head on a swivel.  As far as an arm wrestle goes I guess I better start working out some more and practice my arm wrestling skills  (laughs).