After a string of armed carjackings, and with a sheriff’s deputy chasing him, a 47-year-old murder suspect snatched a randomly chosen 6-year-old boy from his classroom at Park Elementary to use as a hostage and a human shield.
It was 11:30 a.m. and Ben Smith’s class had just returned from recess. Carrying Ben under his arm like “a sack of potatoes,” as one witness described it, the gunman fled east on Newton Street toward North 30th, firing shots at the pursuing sheriff’s deputy and two city police officers who’d joined the chase.
When he reached North 30th Street, Barbette Williams, who had recently finished a 25-year stretch in Angola, broke into an empty house and barricaded himself inside, and officers on the scene quickly surrounded the house.
Then they called SWAT, the Baton Rouge Police Department’s 911.
Although officially known as the Special Response Team most working cops call it SWAT. The acronym stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. SWAT handles BRPD’s most dangerous assignments—hostage rescues, barricaded suspects, high-risk search and arrest warrants and the capture of dangerous fugitives.
There are several components to the SRT—hostage negotiators, explosive ordinance handlers and logistics specialists. But it’s the tactical group, the SWAT gunslingers, who go in when no one else wants to. In Baton Rouge there are 23 of them, divided into two 11-man teams, Alpha and Bravo, plus their commander, Lt. Noel Salamoni. Each team includes a two-man sniper element.
Their equipment is high-tech. Some of it they want kept secret, some they don’t mind showing off: explosive breeching tools, bulletproof shields and ballistic blankets, robotic cameras, an armored truck, a mobile command post and lots of weapons. Under Mayor Kip Holden and Police Chief Jeff LeDuff, SWAT has undergone a high-end upgrade.
“You name it … whatever we’ve asked for, equipment-wise, they’ve given us,” Salamoni says.
Cpl. Joel Pattison is the assistant team leader of Alpha team. He has been with the BRPD for 14 years and SWAT for nine. Before that he was a U.S. Army paratrooper and fought in the Persian Gulf War. He joined SWAT for the action.
“I want to be upfront,” he says.
SWAT isn’t just a team or a day job. It’s a lifestyle. Team members work, train, exercise and socialize together. Their camaraderie and team cohesion is similar to that of an Army airborne unit, Pattison says. Think Band of Brothers.
That non-stop training creates unique challenges in living normal family lives for these elite law enforcement officers.
SWAT members have to enjoy training as well because it never ends. The teams constantly rehearse scenarios, hone their skills. “I’m all about training and the actual real-world events, the high-risk warrants,” Pattison says.
The training has twice saved Pattison’s life in shootouts. “I came out on top both times because I was ready,” he says.
Pattison has been married to his wife, Kim, for 18 years. They were high school sweethearts, and got married four years after they graduated from Tara High School and a year after Pattison joined the Army to become a paratrooper.
Kim has gotten used to her husband’s high-risk lifestyle. “Ever since I met Joel, that’s what it’s all about—adventure,” she says. “I hate to call him an adrenalin junkie, but he is.”
SWAT duty requires a high level of physical fitness. Pattison, his wife and their three children exercise together almost every night using a set of DVDs called Extreme Home Workout. Even the 3-year-old joins in.
If the weather is good, the Pattisons dine on their back deck, overlooking a lake. “We eat dinner together every night,” Pattison says.
The couple’s two oldest children play sports. Cole, 15, plays football and runs track. Their daughter, Koral, 12, plays on her junior high basketball team.
Family dinners, group workouts, kid sports and church. “That’s what we do,” Pattison says. “Church is a very important part of our lives.”
Son Cole is proud of what his dad does for a living. “I think it’s cool,” he says. Cole wants to play pro football, but said he might consider SWAT. “I like that kind of stuff.”
Koral worries just a little bit about her dad. “Sometimes when he tells us what he’s going do, I wonder if it’s going to be safe,” she says, “but I know he’ll come home OK.”
Making the SWAT team is tough. Applicants must have at least three years with the BRPD, must be physically fit and excellent shooters. They need a good reputation within the department and a clean record with Internal Affairs.
On tryout day, applicants have to shoot three firearms courses, pass a push-up and sit-up test, and successfully complete a grueling obstacle course that includes wall climbs, running, shooting, a dummy drag and a tunnel crawl.
If an applicant passes those tests, he or she sits before an interview panel made up of the SRT command staff. After the interview, the panel votes. Not everyone who passes all the tests makes the final cut.
“We have had times where people have made it through … but for whatever reason we didn’t feel they were good for SWAT,” Salamoni says.
New members have to pass a weeklong SWAT school and are on probation for a year.
If making SWAT is tough, the training is even tougher.
At a recent training session, the team practiced explosive entry techniques. When a door has been so fortified that a ram, a hooligan bar or a rabbit tool couldn’t open it, or when the team has to enter through a wall, SWAT breaks out its toys that go bang—RDX plastic explosive and detonator cord.
At the BRPD’s K-9 center, SWAT practiced what its leaders called a “long approach” to their target, an old building set for demolition. Under the cover of their sniper element’s bolt-action .308 and .338 caliber rifles, Alpha and Bravo teams repeatedly approached the building across an open field. With weapons ready and wearing 30 pounds of gear, including helmets, bulletproof vests, radios and extra ammo, entry team members crept singly or in pairs toward the door, while their teammates provided additional cover. Once everyone was stacked at the door, they burst through and swarmed the building, their focus neutralizing threats and rescuing hostages.
After each simulated raid, team leaders critiqued the performance. Pattison reminded Alpha team that during a daylight raid there is little chance of approaching a building full of bad guys without being seen. “We’re not trying to get here undetected,” he says. “We’re trying to get up to this building without getting our asses shot off.”
Training emphasizes the use of cover—something to hide behind that will stop bullets—and covering fire, if needed, from fellow team members.
After a few hours of dry runs, the two teams added explosives to the mix. The demolitions element approached the door and quietly set up an explosive charge.
A quick countdown and BOOM!
The explosion ripped the door off of its hinges and threw foot-long splinters of wood 25 feet through the air. SWAT members rushed through the still-smoking hole where the door had stood. Inside they encountered a second fortified door and set off another charge. Soon shouts of “Dominate!” could be heard coming from the interior of the building, the team members’ signal to each other that the building was secure.
About the only thing missing from this training day is live gunfire. Salamoni says he wishes he had a live-fire shoot house. “If we had our own, we would do live-fire training once a week,” he explains. “Live fire takes it up that extra notch.”
During training, the spirit of Terry Melancon, a narcotics detective slain while serving a drug search warrant in 2005, hangs over the team. When Melancon and his narcotics unit entered a suspected dope dealer’s home on Capital Heights Avenue, the suspect shot Melancon in the chest, but his ballistic vest stopped the bullet. Melancon fired back and hit his assailant, also in the chest, but before the suspect went down he managed one more shot that struck Melancon and killed him.
Six Baton Rouge Police Department SWAT team members won Rookie Team Champion honors in April at the World SWAT Challenge in North Little Rock, Ark. Baton Rouge placed fifth overall among more than two-dozen teams from around the world.
Last October, Baton Rouge SWAT placed second overall behind Dallas in a regional competition, taking first place at the same event in the Super SWAT category.
And in May 2007, two teams of Baton Rouge SWAT officers placed first and second in a statewide competition.
During a live-fire drill at the Louisiana State Police shoot house, Kevin Heinz, an eight-year SWAT veteran, stressed to his teammates the importance of accurate return fire at vulnerable parts of the body. Bad guys sometimes wear body armor. Traditional police doctrine teaches officers to aim for “center mass,” which can leave armed criminals on their feet and able to continue their assault.
Following one of the live-fire raids, Cpl. Wayne Martin, assistant team leader of Bravo team, checked the targets and finds a couple of shots on the edge of the kill zone. Not misses, just not dead center. Martin tells his team to run through the drill again. “Never, ever do we miss,” he says.
The intense training pays off in life-and-death situations. The reason Barbette Williams kidnapped a 6-year-old from Park Elementary and barricaded himself in an empty house was because he was fleeing an arrest warrant issued the day before in New Orleans, charging him with first-degree murder and armed robbery.
“He thought the police were on his tail,” Joel Pattison says.
After seven hours, SRT negotiators convinced Williams to release his young hostage, but the fugitive refused to surrender. Three hours later, SWAT fired tear gas into the front of the house and entered through the back.
“Once the team came in and surprised him,” Pattison says, “he laid down like a scared puppy.”
In another standoff involving children, an armed convicted felon named Ronald Wayne Gorenflo held police off for more than 30 hours at a house on East Washington Street, where he was holed up with his ex-girlfriend’s 14-year-old son. Gorenflo originally barricaded himself in the house with all four of his ex-girlfriend’s children, but he released the three youngest almost immediately.
During the standoff, Gorenflo shot and disabled the SWAT team’s robotic camera. Finally, with negotiations going nowhere, SWAT members initiated their assault with a volley of flash-bangs to confuse and disorient Gorenflo.
“We banged every window in that house,” one SWAT member says.
Then, with snipers deployed to provide covering fire in case Gorenflo starting shooting again, SWAT members breeched the door and stormed the house. They found Gorenflo on the floor, covered with a blanket, wedged between a wall and a bed. He was holding the 14-year-old on top of him like a shield with one hand and clutching a pistol with the other. In the ensuing struggle, Gorenflo shot one SWAT officer in the hand before other team members disarmed and handcuffed him.
“You get hardened to this job and a lot of things don’t bother you,” Salamoni says, “but when there’re kids involved, that’ll hit you big time.”
Despite the obvious danger of being part of a SWAT team, Kim Pattison says she knows that her husband works with a highly trained and dedicated group of professionals. When it comes to tactical operations, SWAT has to be the best of the best.
“I really don’t worry about him,” Kim says. “I know he’s coming home.”