Key Methods for Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Law Enforcement Training Programs: An Interview with Thom Dworak


Thomas Dworak is a retired Sergeant (31 years) from a suburban Chicago police department where he was the Field Training and Evaluation Program Coordinator and the Lead Defensive Tactics/Use of Force Instructor.

A critical function of a Law Enforcement Agency’s Field Training Organization (FTO) is to develop high performing, critically thinking officers who can adapt to the constant changes faced on the streets, interacting with the public. But perhaps one of biggest challenges organizations face is how they, themselves, can continuously adapt and improve to help train tomorrow’s next generation of recruits.

Join webinar host and trainer Thom Dworak on to learn about the feedback and training methods that can develop your trainees’ abilities for self-assessment and using failure as a tool to drive even deeper, more significant lifelong learning.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): You touch on this in your webinar description – but can you share with us how your approach for the Adaptive FTO Program is different from what most of our readers/attendees might be used to seeing or have experienced?

Thom Dworak: The biggest difference is the three major components of the program.

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Decision-Making
  • Critical Thinking


Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, deals with self-awareness and self-regulation of emotions, empathy, motivation and social skills: Being aware of what your trigger points are and being able to hit the pause button when something or someone makes us angry. It’s about understanding someone else’s point of view, being able to communicate effectively, and engage in negotiations with others to seek consensuses. And, finally, develop good social skills that are appropriate for the situations i.e. not wear mirrored sunglasses while making a death notification.

I usually ask my classes “what do officers do more of: write reports or make decisions?” The answer is usually, “make decisions.” And we a poor job of teaching decision-making. Traditional training programs often center on the FTO making the decisions and tell the PPO what to do… Usually without how the FTO came up with the decision.

The Adaptive FTO uses a decision-making model that is lawful and ethical, guided by 4th amendment standards, and is driven by the necessity or urgency to act.

The Critical Thinking component came from previous classes, where the FTO in training would say “these kids coming out of the academy can’t think critically.” I would turn it around and ask them, “so how are you as an FTO going to fix that?” Most of the time there was no answer.

So, we developed a series of questions to be used as part of a feedback session following each call. The list is not all-inclusive, nor is it meant to be used as a checklist. It is very situationally based. It is useful in deconstructing how the PPO made the decision and considers other options (new learning) for the future.

Philosophically, we recommend early decision-making, especially early on. We advocate “Failing Forward:” the use of mistakes as a way to develop new learning, not as a way to punish.

Training is separated from Evaluation. The PPO is not evaluated until they understand what it is they are doing. The Adaptive Feedback model provides a non-critical feedback loop and develops the trainee’s capacity for self-assessment.

The overall goal is to develop adaptive decision makers, who can think critically, be self-aware of their emotional triggers, provide an empathic response to those in need and be situationally aware of self and others in a non-linear operational environment.


JCH: What gave you the idea for this style of training program for officers? 

Thom: The big three FTO programs are old: San Jose has been around about 40 years old. The Sokolove model is about 30 and even the PPO (Reno) model is 16-17 years old. But are there any private business using models that old and succeeding? Law enforcement is constantly trying to take round pegs and fit them into square holes, because that’s the way we’ve always done it. Times change, tactics change, generations change. But changing how we train is difficult at best.


Coupled with that in my FTO training classes (I have been teaching the San Jose Model for about 11 years), the questions and concerns coming from these officers. Most often what I heard was “these kids (trainees) don’t know how to talk, think critically and have a hard time making decisions.

From the experienced FTO’s, I was hearing that millennial trainees were non-receptive to feedback, especially negative feedback.

So, I looked at what was being used to drive on-boarding and professional development in the private sector and it was emotional intelligence. The majority of studies show that EQ out paces IQ in determining success. Also, the five pillars of EQ, 1) self-awareness 2) self-regulation 3) Empathy 4) Motivation 5) Social Skills fit very well into developing the professional police officers.

Decision-making is something a police officer does every day. But most of it is taught by telling the PPO what to do. The Adaptive FTO uses a model based on legal and ethical policing that is driven by the urgency to take an action. The Adaptive FTO introduces Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 thinking but as the Caveman and The Professor: The emotional and thinking parts of the brain.

Personal communication is a skill that needs to be developed. Social media of all types has limited the development of this. Along with communication is the ability to read another’s body language and interpret it. We borrow from Patrick van Horne’s book, “Left of Bang,” and the cues of personal observation. Is a person comfortable or uncomfortable? Dominate and submissive? Then work through strategies on how to move people in and out of each area.

The Adaptive FTO provides a millennial-proof feedback method that develops the trainee’s ability to self-assess their performance and behavior. Coupled with the feedback model is a critical thinking component for the FTO to use to deconstruct decisions the trainee made. The critical thinking questions allow the trainee to review why they decided what they decided. It also allows the trainee to develop additional outcomes to fill up their tool box.

We offer The Adaptive FTO in a couple of formats, a one-day intro program, and a two day FTO professional develop course, where we introduce the basic concepts and address how to adapt it to their current FTO program. We also offer a stand-alone program complete with new documentation and an option for an e-based system that allows the FTO to construct the Training and Evaluation Report in real time on any e-device.


JCH: What differences have you seen as a result of this unique approach to training? Can you share any success stories? 

Thom: The most widely implemented component is the feedback model. What I hear from PPOs is they feel involved in their own training and it really helps them develop their ability to self – assess their performance.

Another department is using the adaptive philosophy and decision-making components. The trainees are taught how to think not what to think and to make critical decisions. Over all, the trainees are thriving in the ever-changing non-linear environment of law enforcement.


JCH: What do you hope attendees will gain from your webinar? 

Thom: An understanding that check-lists and reams of policy are not the way to train.

The goal of a Field Training and Evaluation Program is the development of high performing, emotionally intelligent, adaptive critical thinkers who are able to respond to the demands of a changing non-linear environment.

But many programs are using traditional, FTO-centered, linear training methodologies that create automatons with less than adequate decision-making and communication skills.

The program is designed to enhance your current FTO process by addressing the critical issues necessary to develop the current crop of probationary officers. The Adaptive FTO focuses on skills the trainee will use every day: decision-making, critical thinking, social skills and emotional intelligence.

To learn more about “Developing Communications and Emotional Intelligence Skills in Law Enforcement Officers,” click here.

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