The future of the Chicago Police Department rests on the shoulders of officers like Kerry Ferrantella.
Ferrantella is a field training officer who will mold new officers just out of the academy. He’ll give them one-on-one guidance to help translate the lessons they learned in the classroom onto the street and shape the way they’ll carry themselves throughout their careers.
Ferrantella is one of 24 officers who became field training officers, or FTOs, in December, the tail end of a surge in additions to the program that’s more than tripled the number of field training officers in about three years, an expansion of a long-neglected program that has a huge impact on how police do their work.
“If you feel like you're an officer that has something to offer younger officers who are coming on this job, it's important for you to be an active participant in their success on the job,” Ferrantella said recently during a break in his FTO training at the police academy. “Their success on the job dictates the success of this department. And if you have more competent officers coming out on the street, that's great for us, that's great for the community, that's great for the department.”
Thanks to the influx, the department now has one training officer for every new recruit coming out of the academy. That one-to-one ratio is a major milestone in the department’s efforts to overhaul a program that will determine the future of policing in Chicago.
“The foundation was not there”
Police officers, officials and experts agree the field training program is the most important factor in determining whether bright-eyed rookies turn into good cops or bad ones.
“This is where we train them and mold them and push them to be the type of police officers that we want them to be,” said Sgt. Marty Chatys, who oversees the field training program. “So we have a variety of police officers that can make quick decisions, make good decisions, make ethical decisions and interact properly with the community.”
But for years, Chicago’s field training program was in shambles.
During its investigation into CPD, the U.S. Justice Department heard from high-ranking Chicago Police Department officials who told them that the field training program was “terrible” and a “hot mess.” In its 2017 report, the Department of Justice warned that the “poorly structured” field training program “actively undermines … constitutional policing.”
Veteran Officer Howard Dixon said you could feel the neglect of the FTO program on the street.
“You could see, just the way officers were doing stuff, interacting with people on the street,” Dixon said. “You could see that definitely the foundation was not there.”
“The experience of a seasoned officer is priceless”
Since the Justice Department report, Chicago has added more district-level supervision of the field training program and overhauled the training for FTOs.
Now, field training officers are required to be trained in crisis intervention — which teaches officers how to respond to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.
Sgt. Carrie Cooney, who is in charge of the training for FTOs, said the addition of crisis training equips veteran officers with the tools to show rookie cops “how to relate and calm people down and just deescalate” situations.
“With the younger probationary police officers, a lot of them, this is their first job. They're going to domestics, they've never been married. They've never lived outside of their parents’ home,” Cooney said. “These young officers don't know how to identify and relate, and having the experience of a seasoned officer is priceless.”
There are some early signs that the department’s efforts are paying off. First is the one-to-one ratio, which the Justice Department described as a baseline for a functioning program.
WBEZ recently reported on anonymous surveys in which field training officers and probationary officers gave mostly high marks to the program.
But there are still some outstanding questions.
The Justice Department report found that the Chicago Police Department needed to raise its standards for the disciplinary history of FTO applicants.
Those standards have not changed in the past three years.
Federal investigators also said Chicago didn’t do enough to supervise and remove bad field trainers once they got the position.
In the 2019 survey of probationary police officers, several trainees reported a negative experience with their FTO and complained that the policy on how to address issues with an FTO was unclear.
The monitor overseeing a court-ordered police reform plan in Chicago is scheduled to evaluate the department’s progress on its field training program in her next report.