Force Science News #222:

Readers write about school shooter tactics & FTOs in plainclothes

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Readers write about school shooter tactics & FTOs in plainclothes


Readers responded with a deluge to Force Science News transmission #220 [1/3/13]. Herewith, a representative sampling, edited in some cases for brevity and clarity. The first letter relates to active killers in schools. The rest were prompted by Sgt. Jim West's request for your opinions on whether FTOs should accompany recruits in plainclothes during the final phase of training.


Siren call to suicide?

As an instructor for active shooter response, I asked some of my students what might help schools better deal with an active shooter. One officer had a very simple, at first humorous, suggestion: Why not have the schools install a siren program into their PA system?


At the first sign of trouble one of the administrative staff could flip the switch and the blare of a siren approaching would sound throughout the school. It may just hasten the active shooter's suicide and save some lives.


Ptlm. Rich Stanton

Boston PD SWAT


Plainclothes FTO program abandoned after OIS

My former department used to do a plainclothes FTO ride along--until a woman was kidnapped by a former boyfriend who had stabbed her new boyfriend. There was a pursuit with the trainee and the plainclothes FTO in the lead.


Before additional units could arrive, the suspect stopped his car in the middle of the road. The trainee froze and actually ran away. The FTO was armed with only a handgun, extra magazine, and handcuffs. Fortunately, it was the suspect who ended up getting shot. The department immediately got rid of the plainclothes policy and now FTOs are in uniform always.


James Peters

Certified Force Science Analyst

Law enforcement subject matter expert

Tempe, AZ


FTOs in plainclothes brought immediate public change

As a nine-year FTO, I believe the only way to truly evaluate a trainee officer is to be in plainclothes.


In 2008 our FTOs started wearing plainclothes during the observation/shadow phase of the field training program. We wear polo-style shirts over body armor, police ID with badge on a neck chain, pants, handcuffs, and handgun with spare magazines. We wear a sport coat or lightweight jacket if a radio and other equipment is necessary.


With the change from uniform to plainclothes, we immediately noticed a change in the public's response. In uniform, most people spoke to the FTO instead of the officer in training. Suspects, however, focused more on the trainee instead of the FTO, which I found to be a tactical advantage. It allowed me to blend into the surroundings and maneuver for better observation or to gain a tactical edge.


I also have observed trainees from a follow vehicle, using the wireless mic from the in-car video system to monitor audio of the trainee and others. Trainees may think they're not being monitored when in fact they are. Some may call this "trickery," but better to be aware of the millions of video cameras and people observing you in a controlled environment than in a lawsuit.


FTO Vance Walker

Terrorism liaison officer & firearms/DT instructor

Merced (CA) PD


"Recipe for disaster"

A plainclothes FTO is a recipe for disaster. This practice places a plainclothes officer in a position where not only the public but other LEOs expect a uniformed officer, such as in a squad car, on traffic stops, and answering calls for service like domestic violence, building checks during suspected burglaries, etc.


If the objective is to keep the focus on the recruit, how does the recruit identify this "person" accompanying him/her if asked by the, ride-along? How does this person then suddenly become the police if necessary or if separated from the recruit? If in a worst-case scenario the uniformed trainee goes down, there is no longer a recognized "policeman" on scene.


Having been at these incidents, I know they are chaotic at best in the initial phases. A plainclothes officer could easily be mistaken for a good Samaritan or at worst a bad guy. Such calls typically bring officers from multiple agencies who will not personally know the plainclothes officer. Even if your agency is large enough to always respond with internal resources, it is likely not all officers know each other.


Any time plainclothes officers come "out of role" to respond to a situation, they are at risk. Khakis and polo shirts don't solve the problem. It does take some practice and personal discipline, but officers good enough to be FTOs should easily be capable of keeping themselves distanced and detached enough that the public focuses on the trainee, yet still close enough to provide appropriate training and supervision.


Capt. Joseph Perez

District commander/former FTO supervisor

Illinois State Police


Subject ignoring trainee? Simple solution

If an agency wants a recruit to be the focal point of attention from a witness or victim and feels that a uniformed FTO pulls attention away, just tell the person who's talking to the FTO to talk to the recruit.


Ofcr. Sean Foley

Northlake (TX) PD


Trouble? Quick change to raid jacket

As a plainclothes FTO, I have had times when I've had to actively engage in investigations and police action. I carry a jacket with bold print saying SHERIFF on the front and back (like a raid jacket) that I will put on if I feel I will need to step out of observer role.


Dpty. Victor Vandertol

Mecosta County (MI) SO


Opportunity to teach trust of the uniform

One of the great achievements of the FTO program is to teach kids to know and trust police. We want them to trust the "uniform".


I tell cops that most of you had a dog as a kid. Today you probably love that breed and when you see that kind of dog on leash going for a walk, you want to take a minute to pet him and say hello.


Well, we want every kid in America to trust their "sheepdog"... and having FTOs in uniform is one more opportunity to build that trust.


Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, ret.

Author, On Killing and On Combat

Mascoutah (IL)


"They'd have every right to shoot me"

Years ago as an FTO in plainclothes, I was working night shift and my trainee had to search a residence with an open door. As we were waiting for backup, it dawned on me that if there were homeowners sleeping and they woke up and saw me in a polo shirt holding a gun in the dark, they'd have every right to shoot me.


Det. Jim Hill

Certified Force Science Analyst

Gang Investigations Unit

Arizona State Gang Task Force


Cons outweigh pros

As a former sheriff's lieutenant/training commander who retired after 30 years, I absolutely do not agree with the FTO wearing plainclothes. Some of the reasons:


1. Citizens do not know if you are LEO or not. You're still a cop and will act like a cop, forgetting that you do not look like a cop.


2. Too easy to be mistaken by other officers as a bad guy with a gun. Just look at the times that plainclothes or off-duty personnel are killed by fellow officers.


3. When I FTO'd or supervised, I always told the recruit: "You need to get out of the car before I do and make contact with the complainant, etc. If that person starts to direct their attention to me and not to you, you must take control and redirect their attention."


4. Many FTOs will not be able resist getting involved, so they might as well be in uniform.


5. FTOs need to have all of their gear on because of all of the possibilities that might occur. Hard enough to carry all that equipment on a duty belt, let alone in plainclothes.


6. It is up to the recruit and FTO both to be sure that the FTO is merely shadowing as a uniformed officer.


Some uniformed officers think it to be sexy to be in plainclothes, but if we actually write out the pros and cons, the cons outweigh the pros.


Ofcr. Mark Bala

Punta Gorda (FL) PD


No one is really fooled

Hopefully some explanation is given to the citizens for an FTO's presence in plainclothes. It would be a very bad practice from a communications and community relations standpoint to just show up on a call with this other person and not mention to the citizens what his or her purpose is. It's no different than when we have a civilian ride-along.


So in the end, it is likely that no one involved in the incident truly believes the trainee officer is solo, and they all behave accordingly, which invalidates the notion that having the FTO in plainclothes helps in evaluating the trainee's solo performance.


Ofcr. Eric Huesman

Brentwood (CA) PD


Plainclothes gets more attention

We found that an FTO in plainclothes actually gets more attention and creates more of a distraction from the probationary officer than when the FTO is in full patrol uniform.


When the FTO is in plainclothes, citizens immediately focus on him or her and want to know who they are and why they are there. When the FTO is in full uniform, the only question we get on very rare occasions is "why are there two cops" when the call is not typically a two-officer response.


The real issue we've found is that the FTO is typically a more senior officer who is very assertive and has a command presence, so many citizens gravitate toward the FTO. The FTO must insist that the probationary officer lead the approach, without "crowding" when at all possible. I've gone as far on many occasions to act overly disinterested as the probationary officer conducts business. This non-verbal communication discourages the citizen/complainant/victim from approaching me.


Edward Mohn

Commander of Police Operations

College of Lake County (IL) PD


Safe response...or risky reaction in a crisis?

In a crisis, will a plainclothes FTO, who is accustomed to usually working in uniform, have the mental capacity, under extreme stress and focused on solving the problem at hand, to go into compliance mode with the demands of responding uniformed officers to drop his gun, get on the ground, etc?


The FTO should be in the regular uniform of the day. This way, if the recruit crumbles under stress, the FTO is there to take over being the primary contact officer until the situation is resolved.


Sgt. John Huff

Hinckley (OH) PD


Plainclothes presence is valuable learning experience

If you have a student officer who is not able to protect a plainclothes officer on a crime scene, then I would say the candidate officer is not ready for solo patrol. Having a plainclothes officer show up on a crime scene is sooner or later a likely scenario during a patrol shift. In that circumstance, a uniformed officer needs to maintain command of the scene. By having the FTO present in plainclothes the student officer is presented with another opportunity for training and a new experience they can learn from.


This is an important part of a trainee's education. Don't shortchange your new officers by not letting them learn from this valuable experience.


Sgt. Donald Reidel

Sequim (WA) PD


Equipment & identity issues

Apart from the issue of officer identification, a plainclothes FTO is unlikely to have all duty equipment. This poses a significant risk if a situation goes off the rails and the FTO has to intervene. How many of plainclothes FTOs carry a Taser, OC, baton, or even rubber gloves during the final phase of field training?


Moreover, unless your agency issues cloaks of invisibility, a citizen is certainly going to see the FTO and realize he or she is an LEO. Any viewer of CSI will believe the plainclothes officer is an investigator and thus in charge of the scene.


Sgt. John Converse

Rockville City (MD) PD


Uniform discourages assault

A suspect may be more hesitant to attempt an assault with two uniformed officers present. Officer safety comes first. Lessons we can come back to and practice the next day must remain secondary.


Asst. Dir. David Corolis

Advanced Training Center

US Customs & Border Patrol


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