In late March at the 44th Annual Academy Awards, comedian Chris Rock made a joke about actor Will Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith (also an actor). Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Smith was particularly enthralled with the joke, and Mr. Smith strode up on stage, squared off, and slapped the Rock across the face "in defense" of his wife.
According to Nielsen data reported in the New York Times, there were about 17.4 million viewers watching in the minutes after the slap, "up from 16.8 million shortly before it."
Social media exploded with memes and jokes and comments and outrage and feigned outrage and criticism and ridicule and recrimination and well, it kinda sorta broke the Internet for a minute.
Seemingly everyone had a "hot take."
Jamie Borden, a retired sergeant with a large police department in Nevada and founder of Critical Incident Review (CIR)—a consultancy that helps police officers, their leadership, investigators, as well as civilians better understand what an officer experiences and how decisions are made during a critical incident—also had a take.
In fact, he had more than one.
Sensationalism and Tribalism
Borden told POLICE in a recent interview, "If Chris Rock hadn't been slapped by Will Smith, the majority of the people who have seen that video would've never even known the Oscars had occurred—I'm one of those people. I saw a snippet of this thing happening, I clicked on it, and I saw the event unfold."
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, people across the world essentially chose up sides based on their personal perspective on what is and/or isn't acceptable behavior.
Some were supportive of—or at least sympathetic to—Will Smith.
"The joke was insensitive, and insulting and he was being a good husband defending his wife's honor."
Others sided with—or at least were understanding of—Chris Rock.
"He didn't know she had a medical condition. He tells jokes. He's a comedian. That's what he does."
People got "triggered" and tossed around terms like "toxic masculinity" and "body shaming" and "victimization" and "patriarchy" and whatnot.
The thing started "trending" and TV pundits began pontificating. The back-and-forth discussion morphed at times into heated debate. Folks got downright angry. Voices got outright shrill.
Video of a police incident hits the Internet, goes instantly viral, and then directly divides people into warring factions of opinion.
Like that, except not.
Lessons for Trainers
So, what in the world does the "Slap Heard 'Round the World" incident mean for law enforcement training? For starters, it should—Borden says—reinforce the principle that reviewing police videos for the purposes of training is more than just watching a playback and playing Monday morning quarterback.
Borden says, "We cannot simply critique videos. We've got to analyze them and do our best to figure out the why behind an event. Why did this happen? What can we do to create either the same type of behavior, or change the behavior, or avoid the behavior? If we don't know the why we can't do any of those things. We've gotta know the why."
In altogether too many instances—in police training, in the public square, and in the political arena—we hear people say, "Well, the officer shouldn't have done this" or the officer "should have" or "could have" "would have" done this, that, or the next.
"All of that language is what's called counterfactual reasoning because we are now analyzing what we believe should have happened, and we can't do that. We have to look at what did happen, and then we have to analyze that information. We have to figure out why the officer(s) made the decisions they made, and then extrapolate important training elements from that analysis," Borden says.
Borden continues, "That's far, far, far more difficult than just critiquing a video based on your own experiences—based on what you've been trained in the past, based on myriad issues that you've been faced with as an officer—that affect your view of that video."
Back (to the) Slap
Borden, for his part, credits Rock for his professionalism during the now infamous incident with Smith.
"Chris Rock had no idea that he was gonna be slapped—and he is slapped," Borden says. "And I mean, not just a light slap—an open-hand 'bitch slap,' if you will. He's knocked off his center but never one time does he reach up and touch his face in response to being struck. He doesn't scowl. He doesn't do any of those things. In fact, against what about 99.99% of humanity would've done, he puts his hand hands behind his back and then just makes a comment in an effort to bring everyone back down."
Borden adds, "He stood with his arms behind his back and literally verbally de-escalated that scenario
One can find myriad viral videos in pop culture and seek to extrapolate from them some sort of "training"—this discussion isn't that.
Borden is insistent that any discussion of the Smith/Rock video in the context of police training not be misconstrued as actual police training.
"Putting a barrier between pop culture and police work is extremely important here," Borden says. "No police officer is gonna stand and let someone slap them without some sort of response to it because it's against the law."
Borden reiterates, "I want there to be a very deliberate barrier put between pop culture and police work."
However, the lesson here—regardless of whether or not the video is pop culture or law enforcement—is that when we view video and look for what is important for training, it takes more than a critique.
"It takes more than critiquing action," Borden concludes. "It takes analyzing action—and that is a much deeper dive into an event than just a critique."
The incident involving Chris Rock and Will Smith was not life and death—police work oftentimes can be. Any analysis of police video for the purposes of training should have inherent in it the gravitational force of life-or-death consequences.