The “Split-Second Decision” Trope: Why Every Media Outlet Does the Exact Same Police Puff Piece on Shooter Simulators
Technology that allegedly “trains” officers for “split-second” “life or death” decisions is far more about P.R. than preventing violence.
There is no “exclusive” pre-written story local journalists like more than the “split-second decision” report where they “go inside” police training to show how super reasonable it is that our police departments blow away other humans at rates 10-40 times other developed countries.
The formula goes something like this: A reporter, in an effort to engage with the broader discourse around police violence and serve up cheap, pre-cooked copy, gets an “inside look” at how police “train” for “split-second decisions” of “life and death.” And 100 percent of the time, once they ostensibly run through a series of simulations teed up by the police department P.R. department where they’re forced to waste a virtual bad guy, they come out of the scenario with a greater appreciation for the “dangers police face” and now “have a better understanding” of these “life and death” choices. Here’s a fairly standard one:
Almost always, to lend the police stenography the air of reportage, these pieces are framed as “exclusive” or a “rare inside look,” despite the story being a carbon copy of hundreds of other stories and clearly curated by police department P.R. teams:
For over 10 years, hundreds of departments have soaked their respective city budgets for millions of dollars to buy these virtual training devices while, as the most recent data from December 2021 shows, we’ve seen zero decline in police shootings or abuse.
One of the primary reasons is that the simulators instruct and train officers to shoot as much as they attempt to teach “de-escalation.” There’s no clear reason why these simulators would, in any way, lead to less shootings, since the option of shooting is normalized and even encouraged based on a stacked deck of scenarios. This, one can infer, is why every single reporter who “exclusively” goes “inside” the “training” is given a scenario where they blow away some psychopath eagerly doing Suicide By Cop.
In the scores of media examples reviewed by The Column, not one showed a scenario where the reporter talked down or peacefully detained a “suspect.” They were all either tased or shot.
Because the point is to say to the viewing public: See, you too, if faced with this made-up and loaded scenario, would also shoot the unarmed suspect. Under the nominally liberal pretext of empathy or “walking in their shoes,” the whole P.R. exercise is designed to solicit the exact response it gets, which is: “Well, maybe the cops who blow away Black kids have a point.” (If there’s an example of a reporter not coming to this conclusion, in our review of hundreds of examples of this report, we never found it).
It’s as if every foreign policy reporter in 2002 played a video game designed by Dick Cheney where they had only two choices: (1) invade Iraq or (2) watch a nuclear bomb going off in Manhattan. It’s transparently a tool of manipulation because the scenarios journalists are provided—at least the ones they air—are premised on a false binary. In none of these reports did we get the “split-second decision” scenario where a cop can decide to not pull over someone with a broken tail light, can let someone run away rather than shoot them in the back, permit the working-class Black man to sell unlicensed cigarettes, or look the other way when an individual uses a counterfeit $20 bill. Instead, it’s always a crazed meth head pulling out a gun.
And police aren’t just seeking out local reporters for this P.R. effort. There are dozens of reports of college students, high school, and middle school children, and—most cynical of all—local Black activists being brought in to play out these heavily curated “simulations.” They’re even increasingly being used to influence grand juries.
Strangely, local news reporters rarely, if ever, air reports where they simulate the dangers facing firefighters, roofers, construction workers, highway maintenance workers, or food delivery workers—despite the fact that all of these jobs are statistically more dangerous than being a police officer.
The point, quite explicitly, is to condition public sentiment to be more pro-police by trafficking in “fog of war” excuse making. We know this because police trade publications and the companies peddling the simulators openly say as much.
One of the largest players in the industry—and one featured in dozens of local news reposts—Virtra, posts on its website a media guide written by industry consultant Ron LaPedis, on how these simulators can be used to “Educate Your Community”:
The San Francisco Police Department thought this was such a good idea that they hosted a media day to introduce its updated use of force training program using the VirTra V-300 immersive training simulator…
What if you could not only train your officers to de-escalate situations to prevent use of force, but could also show your community you are committed to minimizing use of force within your jurisdiction? Money spent on de-escalation training is money well spent because it can not only help prevent line of duty deaths and lawsuits, it can also help improve general officer safety and community satisfaction with policing.
Put another way: It can help sell the “community” on the idea that use of force is both inevitable and preferable. LaPedis, quoting Ed Smith, Range Master and Training Officer for the O’Fallon Police Department in Missouri, is clear that the point is to sell “the community” on the idea that de-escalation is theoretically ideal but typically unrealistic.
Smith is a firm believer in continually “sharpening the knife” by ensuring that officers go back on the street every day just a little bit sharper than they were the day before. To do that, he has built an officer training program around his city’s VirTra simulator. He has shared the same scenarios with the public so that they can get an idea of those split-second decisions needed to stop a threat. Participants and viewers soon learn that taking control of a situation is not nearly as easy as it is in the movies, and that de-escalation, while preferable, may not always work.
Policing technology industry consultant David Blake also writes a detailed breakdown at police trade publication Police1 on how to use simulators for P.R. purposes, writing:
After a controversial incident involving police use of force, both your local media and community members are questioning how you train your officers. To address their concerns, you want to set up an outreach event where you run civilians through some use of force scenarios.
This is why virtually every jurisdiction taps a dopey local reporter to read their script for them. Not a single example could be found of any reporter being skeptical, veering from the “split-second decision” party line, or questioning how the “technology” is supposed to actually reduce police shootings—since the “correct” response to the scenarios they’re provided is to pull the trigger. This isn’t to say these simulators don’t come with more nuanced or nonviolent scenarios where the outcomes are to avoid lethal force, but these certainly are not the ones being spoon fed to reporters, and they’re certainly not the ones being aired on TV. Indeed. As Blake instructs police departments to do in his industry media guide, when setting up these P.R. ops for reporters and the public:
Select the right scenarios. Pick your scenarios carefully. Think about the big issues that are commonly misunderstood or negatively framed in the media (shots to the back, mistake-of-fact shootings, or “there was no reason to stop him” issues). Most FOS have hundreds of scenarios to choose from.
Here Blake is explicitly saying that when running simulation scenarios for reporters and “the community,” police departments should go out of their way to select the scenarios that most serve their public relations needs. E.g. the ones that most bolster the narrative that cops only shoot people because they’re left with no other choice.
Because the point isn’t to get a real “sense of the dangers police face”—it’s, by industry trade publications own admission, to frighten uncritical mid-market TV journalists so they read off your preferred pro-police talking points without wondering why they are the 860th person to do this exact same report.