“Violence will not be tolerated,” said Missouri’s hapless governor Jay Nixon in the days before the grand jury announced its judgment in the Ferguson police-shooting case. He seemed to be indicating that officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing the unarmed Michael Brown on Aug. 9. If so, there is likely to be a public explosion of outrage. Of course, if Wilson is cleared, there will have to be compelling evidence that his extreme action was justified. But justifiable homicide does not equal unpreventable homicide. This killing didn’t need to happen.
“Of course it didn’t,” says Lew Hicks, a former Navy SEAL who has taught arrest-and-control methods to an estimated 20,000 police trainees across the country. Hicks was reluctant to talk about which specific techniques he would have used, because he wasn’t there. “I do teach weapon retainment, but that’s not the point. It’s how you carry yourself in the community you serve. You have to project calm and confidence,” he told me. “You have to be trained physically, mentally and even spiritually to make moral decisions instinctively, spur of the moment.” Wilson had placed himself on the defensive from the start. By all accounts, he was sitting in his car, talking to Brown through his open window. He needed to get out of the car and subtly establish his authority. Things like tone of voice, body language and facial expression can make all the difference.
I first met Lew Hicks 13 years ago, when he was part of the most rigorous and creative police-training program ever attempted in the U.S. It was called the Police Corps, and it was founded by Adam Walinsky, a crusty and contentious former Marine and aide to Robert F. Kennedy. After the Detroit riots in 1967–43 civilians were killed and hundreds injured–Walinsky spent the next 20 years studying police practices, from the pavement up. His original thought was to create an elite program that would lure graduates from top colleges to do four years of service in return for scholarship money and a fast track to graduate school. In the end, the recruits mostly came from state colleges, and they were kids who wanted to become cops anyway. Bill Clinton was the first board chairman of the Police Corps, and his Administration funded the program in 1995.
Training was the heart of the Corps. It was full-time residential, a form of boot camp. It was far more physical than routine training–the graduates were superfit–but the mental conditioning was rigorous as well. Indeed, it very much resembled the training the military provides for special operators like SEALs and Green Berets. It was situational: actors and retired cops were hired to play miscreants, and recruits were judged on how well they responded to spur-of-the-moment situations. Even the firing range was situational: it was paintball, and you could easily be “shot” if you made the wrong call. There was required reading about urban poverty, police work and leadership. Recruits were required to mentor troubled boys and girls. And Hicks taught them how to be: how to use their hands, how to present themselves, how to protect themselves. “I can pick out the Police Corps graduates on the street just by the way they stand,” said Baltimore police chief Ed Norris, who was one of the first to embrace the Corps. In the end, Walinsky produced more than 1,000 of the best-trained police officers in the country, and many are still on the job.
The Police Corps was tiny and expensive. There was all sorts of opposition to it. Liberals preferred that the money be spent on antipoverty programs. Conservatives liked the idea but preferred that the money not be spent at all. It was killed by George W. Bush, at which point federal spending on police programs went entirely in the wrong direction by providing local cops with militarized up-armored vehicles, cammies, Kevlar, sniper rifles. This, at a moment when the military, especially the Army, was moving toward retraining its troops in a way that resembled the Police Corps. “We want them to be able to make moral decisions under pressure on the basis of incomplete information,” General David Petraeus once told me, using almost the same words as Hicks.
The public conversation since the death of Michael Brown has largely been a waste of time. Remonstrating about race is important, but wouldn’t it be more useful to talk about training–not just for police officers, but teachers too? Good training costs money, but we need to have a conversation about how we currently spend money. These are the people, after all, who shape our lives and sometimes, tragically, our deaths.
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This appears in the November 24, 2014 issue of TIME.