As Officer Brad Laman handed the woman back her ID and began asking her how the accident she was involved in happened, officer Ben Locke hung back.
He wasn’t watching the woman; he was watching Laman.
It’s all part of Laman’s training as a new officer; Locke is his training officer with the Cortland Police Department. “I’m letting him take charge more and more,” Locke said.
The hope is that in about three years, new officers like Laman, who has been out on the road for only a couple weeks, have applied their training experiences — at least enough to feel more confident at their jobs.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion for new officers coming on, a lot to learn in a relatively short period of time,” Locke said. “They have a lot to take in and we have a lot to feed them and some do handle it better than others, but I think it’s our job to bring them along.”
A field training officer plays a big role in making sure new officers are able to learn, especially when they make a mistake, said Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms.
“It’s important to have good training officers that help to put out the most highly trained officers as you can because you’re going to learn from what you see and who you’re with,” Helms said.
The amount of time spent with a field training officer depends on the department.
The sheriff’s office does 16 weeks, city police does 12 to 14 weeks and Homer police does four weeks — the state’s minimum requirement.
During those weeks, the trainee learns everything from how to stay safe to find their way around town or how to do the paperwok.
The little things matter
When a new cop starts out they are given a lot of information to learn on top of the training they received during their six months in police academy and while it may seem insignificant the smaller aspects of the job tie into what it means to grow a cop.
The truth is most of the job — 80 percent — is paperwork.
“It could be two minutes of field work and it brings on two hours of paperwork and it’s all on articulating what you saw and why you did what you did,” Homer Officer Jay Forbessaid. He started at Homer in June and has since completed his four weeks of field training.
Homer Police Chief Robert Pitman advises kids who want to be cops they are better off going to college for a degree in English than criminal justice.
Forbes, who was trained by Matt Compton, said learning how to do the paperwork can help officers identify what they need to improve on and what they’ve done well.
Cortland City Police Chief F. Michael Catalano said how officers write and are able to articulate what happened during a call is an indication of what they’ve learned.
But it isn’t just learning the computer system or how to write reports, it’s adapting to the area, especially for Cortland County sheriff’s officers, who patrol 502 square miles. It’s something Peter Wright, a training officer with the sheriff’s officer, has been working on with his new trainee, Officer Dalton Sudbrink, who’s been a trainee for a little more than a month.
“That comes in time,” Wright said.
The training is also meant to teach an officer how to have a commanding presence, Compton said, especially as younger officers.
“The population sees them as this young person, ‘What gives them the right to be able to tell me what to do,’” Compton said.
Part of having a commanding presence is knowing how to approach situations and talk to people.
“Any time we were on a domestic (incident call), he would take control and seperate the parties and start talking to them not as somebody that was above them, but trying to let them know he’s here to help,” Forbes said.
“When you’re in the academy it’s a different setting,” Laman said. “It’s a controlled environment so it’s interesting to see when you’re actually out there doing it, you realize maybe where you need to work on things, where you’re good at things.”
Locke said he was taught by his field training officer and he teaches officers to treat people fairly; it can east a high-stress situation.
“The way you stand, the way you look at people all mean something to people,” Locke said. “You have to speak to them like they’re human. If you speak to them like you’re above them or like you’re a robot, they will not respond, you will never achieve anything.”
But Locke also said figuring out how to approach incidents comes with time and practice.
And when it comes, it can help the officer stay safe.
Helms reminds his officers that they can’t help if they’re injured.
“We both know that everybody we talk to on the street is not trying to kill us today, so there’s that fine medium to get them into — don’t forget it (officer safety) but find a safe medium, so you’re paying attention to everything,” Helms said.
It goes back to how officers command a scene: how they stand, where they put their hand, how they talk to people.
Helms noted officers don’t put their hands in their pockets or stand too close to people for safety reasons, but they shouldn’t stand an awkward distance away. He also said it helps to have good communication and listening skills.
“The more you don’t have to put your hands on anybody and can get them to do what you need them to do just by talking to them, that’s worth its weight in gold,” Helms said. “I think with my people, that’s a big asset because we don’t have the luxury of having five cars coming around the corner to help you out.”
It’s one of the things Sudbrink is trying to get better at. It can be difficult for him to think of questions to get the information he needs.
“Doing things first-hand and really seeing how it is here, that’s a big difference,” Sudbrink said.
Walk first, then run, Forbes said.
“You don’t have control over something if you’re going really fast,” Forbes said. “Take it slow and do it correctly.”
Safety during traffic stops was one of the things Forbes said he had to work on. Compton taught him that it is safer to put in the call notifying dispatchers of pulling someone over as you are driving rather than waiting until you’ve parked.
“If something happens, it’s better to have back-up get there than to pull up behind the vehicle, park, then call it in,” Forbes said.
He learned to call in the stops the same way all officers learn new aspects of the job — repetition.
“The more he does it, the more he gets used to it,” Compton said. “The more he gets out there and is able to practice it is when you are able to grow into it.”
Officers are always learning
Learning doesn’t stop when the cop leaves the academy.
“I’ve been in law enforcement over 25 years, I’m still learning every day,” Pitman said.
“I try to help new officers by saying, ‘Hey, you’re not going to know everything. Swallow your pride,’” Compton said.
Building off a mistake makes any officer better.
Field training officers will let the trainee take control of a situation, then observe. The training officer might step in to prevent a tense moment from escalating. It becomes a teaching moment.
“There won’t be a a situation we handle together through this entire process that we won’t talk about, whether it’s good or bad we’re always looking to improve,” Locke said.
Of course, that comes with paperwork; the training officer has a grading sheet. Forbes and Compton sit down daily to go over what he did well, and what he could work on.
“When I start out week one and we look at the sheet and I have trouble with a traffic stop or I have trouble articulating something in a report, it’s not the same thing wrong at the end of the 160 or 180 or 200 hours that I’m done with Matt,” Forbes said.
Part of the learning process is training officers sharing their experience, sheriff’s Officer Wright said.
Helms, who’s been in law enforcement for over three decades, recalled an officer who believed there was nothing left to learn after graduation form the police academy.
“The academy’s just the beginning,” Helms said. “I think the best officer to train comes in very quiet, they’re like a sponge. They take in everything, no comment. You don’t really know anything yet, so just sit back and listen and take it in.”