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Avoiding Officer Burnout: The Rewards of Field Training

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If you haven’t had an opportunity yet to learn from Steve Kellams, you’re missing out. Steve is an expert on law enforcement field training and a frequent speaker at training conferences. He has had a distinguished career and currently serves as an Administrative Captain with the Bloomington Police Department in Indiana.

Recently, Agency360 CEO Matt Molter had the opportunity to interview Steve to talk about a variety of topics impacting field training and FTOs (field training officers). Steve has generously allowed us to share his insights with you. This is the first of several upcoming Agency360 blog posts that will highlight conversations with Steve and other field training experts.

Matt:  Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Steve. So, let’s start with the basics. What got you interested in field training?

Steve:  That’s actually a great question because there are so many levels. I think at the very basic level, it was a desire to help new people along. I got into field training after only being on my department for a couple of years. I was looking around, watching new people come in, and I wanted to help. I had that desire to share information. I think that’s in all cops, right? All law enforcement officers have this kind of desire to help. When you see new people coming on board and trying to get it, you recognize the problems you had. You empathize with that, and you want to help. You want to try to provide them good information and get them moving along on a good path in their career. I think that’s where it all started, the idea of helping.

Matt:  I totally understand that. You’ve been in law enforcement for 26 years now, and I spent 11 years myself as an officer. One thing we both have seen in our careers is officer burnout. What do you see happening to officers over time that leads to burnout?

Steve: Can you imagine spending 20 or 30 years in that patrol setting? I know it’s something different every day, but it really isn’t. It’s the same thing coming at you in different ways. So, I think to have a long, truly relevant career in law enforcement, you’ve got to be able to reinvent yourself. You look for those different challenges, and being an FTO is one of those challenges. It’s a huge challenge! You’ve got to have the knowledge base to understand what you’re doing. You have to be able to present to people in a way that they can learn from it. And, then you’ve got to deal with all the things that come up with trying to do that well.

I think it was one of those challenges that helped propel me to the next level of my career. Without becoming an FTO, I’d probably still be that normal, average cop – and there is nothing wrong with that. But I think I became – actually I know for a fact – that I became better by having to teach at a basic level. That is what made me a better cop and encouraged me to have more interest in training. Then, I got into the teaching/training field, and I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed communicating, getting my point across to people.

Matt: Is it similar, just to a bigger audience?

Steve: Being an FTO is different than presenting to 20 or 30. I’ve been in the FTO role several times in my career. I was involved in explorer programs and teen academies, and then I went into instruction after I moved into narcotics. Now, all of a sudden, I have to stand in front of a group talking and kind of acting. I was putting on roles to talk about different things. And this is how training help me to reinvent myself throughout my career – having to find different ways to approach things. It’s kept my career fresh, and I recommend that, just in law enforcement in general. Don’t do the same thing for 30 years.

Matt: It seems like that is where burnout sets in.

Steve: Yes, and burnout is where many problems stem from in law enforcement. Instead, I want to encourage officers to find areas where you can help, and attack them.

Matt: It’s one thing to know how to do something. But to be able to teach something is a whole other challenge, taking that knowledge to a higher level.

Steve: I remember one day I had a lightbulb moment. I remember teaching a new recruit at the jail, and we were talking about the booking process. I knew the process and the steps you had to take. About halfway through my instruction, the rookie looked at me and said, “Why do we do it that way?”

I immediately rolled into my own speech about “this is why we do that” and then I thought, “How the heck did I know all that?” It was not something I really had given any thought before. But as the rookie’s question was presented, I realized I have literally taken the next step of understanding. I had moved from the ability to know what I was supposed to do, and now I could explain why I was supposed to do it. It all just clicked. I think that every FTO or training has that moment where they recognize that they know information on a higher level.

Training makes you a better cop. That’s one of the things I absolutely love about teaching in general. To teach it, you’ve got to understand it and know it. And to teach cops – they’ll call bullshit faster than anybody else, right? So when I’m up there talking, they can tell real quick if I have no idea what I’m talking about. And if that happens, they’ll check out. They’re done. So it’s a challenge.

Matt: You’re so right. We’re probably all similar in our motivation or we wouldn’t be here. I totally agree that providing training is a great way to keep your career interesting and meaningful. Those changes can help keep your rank and file from burning out.

About Steve Kellams

Steven Kellams is a Captain and field training expert for the Bloomington Police Department (Indiana). In 2000, Captain Kellams was instrumental in redesigning the field training program for the Bloomington Police Department and has taught that program to hundreds of departments throughout Indiana and the United States. He has also instructed on field training issues at the national level when he presented courses at the 2002, 2009, 2010, and 2011 National Association of Field Training Officers conferences. Captain Kellams is a certified Indiana Law Enforcement Academy training instructor and teaches courses in Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, domestic violence, officer safety, firearms, civil disturbance, and field training.



Agency360 will have more of our conversations with Steve Kellams in future blog posts. If you’re interested in attending field training courses taught by Steve, you can find more information at on the Public Agency Training Council (PATC) website.