The commute game: A powerful tool honing observation skills

FTO can be an extremely stressful time in a young officer’s career. Most law enforcement academies could easily be twice as long as they are and still only begin to scratch the surface of what an officer should know. After the Academy the FNG is supposed to be able to seamlessly recite off the elements of a crime, know the best tactical way to handle a situation, have excellent radio traffic, know where you are at all times and be able to provide a detailed description of a suspect or vehicle.

Many of the desired skills and traits for a good officer are talked about during the Academy, but not actually taught. Things like knowing exactly where you are at any given time, knowing the shortest route to a call or being able to rattle off a license plate and vehicle description (using the proper phonetic alphabet) are things a rookie wants to be able to do without having to mumble and stumble over. This is where the “Commute Game” comes into play.

The Commute Game is something I created during my time in the academy when undergoing the long drive back and forth from home and the Academy. Here are some games to start playing while in the car to begin to internalize some of the necessary skills to be able to pass FTO.

Where am I right now?

One of the quickest ways to fail FTO is having poor geographical knowledge. An officer needs to know exactly where he or she is at any time. You never know when you will suddenly have to call out a traffic stop or a pursuit or you “On view” some in progress crime and need to let everyone know where you are.

Know your local addressing grid — Not all cities or counties have the same addressing grid. Learn what directions the streets run and how they are labeled. What sides of the street are even and odd numbered addresses? Learn this for your city and the surrounding county, since they may be different.

Start “calling out” your exact location including cross street or hundred block — Make this a subconscious and constant activity. As you drive, look at mailboxes, cross streets or numbers on buildings to know where you are. Pretend you are on a radio and announce out loud, “I will be on traffic. Northbound on XYZ Street and ABC Road with a (insert plate or vehicle description). If you have a particular agency you want to work for, make sure to do a ride along and listen closely to the particular radio traffic. Radio procedures vary wildly from location to location.

Practice identifying different vehicle makes and models

I’m not a “car guy.” For me a vehicle is merely a means to get between point A and point B faster than I can walk. When I started the commute game, I realized that I didn’t have a clue about cars and could only identify one in five at a glance. Sure I knew it was a car or truck, but when you are either calling out a vehicle (such as a pursuit or suspicious vehicle), or looking for a suspect vehicle, you really need to be as specific as possible.

Pick a car that you don’t recognize and study it — If you are in stop and go traffic, take an opportunity to figure out the vehicle make and model. Look at the headlights and tail lights. Could you identify it at a glance or in the dark? Keep being observant until you can.

Phonetically call out license plates — Start calling out the license plates of vehicles around you in traffic. Make sure to use the proper LE phonetic alphabet, which is different from the one the military uses. Start saying them out loud so that when you are on FTO it is fluid and smooth with no stumbling. “I’m on traffic at XYZ location with Adam Henry Tom One One Eight Seven.

When sitting at the Doctor’s office or barber shop, flip through the car magazines. If you’re like me you could care less about horsepower or torque. Instead focus on body style, headlights and taillights. Keep updated on current vehicle body styles so you can recognize them at a glance.

Call out descriptions of other drivers or pedestrians

The commute game is an excellent time to start honing your observation skills. Ultimately a large part of being a cop consists of being observant. When not responding directly to a call, being observant allows an officer to see something and think, “Hmmm….that shit doesn’t look right. Maybe I should go check that out!” It may be nothing, but it may also be a vehicle parked in a strange location while a small horde of dopers are running through the neighborhoods like Star Wars Jawas, stealing everything not nailed down. And then stealing a hammer to take the things that are.

Suspect is a….

When driving along start verbally saying descriptions on people you see. When you do start with the largest most obvious traits and work your way down. First is race and sex. If you manage to call out race and sex right away you have already eliminated a large portion of the population for other officers to focus on.

Once you have stated the most basic facts, “Suspect is a white female currently running north on XYZ street (jogger)” you can then describe physical characteristics. The best rule of thumb when possible is to start from the top and work your way down. Now it is a “White female with blonde hair wearing a pink shirt and dark shorts. Be as detailed as possible, but don’t worry about being ridiculous. More than anything it is initially an exercise in observation skills and memory.


Any time you find yourself driving along on autopilot, oblivious to your surroundings is a good time to mentally snap yourself back into the present with the commute game. Over time it stops being a game you do during boring traffic commutes and starts to be how you look at the world. Ultimately it is just a tool to get you to start seeing the world around you, which is critical for law enforcement, but equally important for the average citizen. Knowing where you are and being able to accurately describe a person or vehicle could one day be a critical skill when you find yourself on the phone with 911 after some horrible emergency.

Do any of you officers out there have another variation of the commute game that you play? Please feel free to let me know and don’t forget to like and share the post if you thought there was some good information in there!





Originally published at So you wanna be a cop?.