Photo | Dan Anderson / Lagniappe
The MPD SWAT team deploys lethal force as a last resort when a suspect poses a threat to the public, to bystanders or to the officers themselves.
The night in January 2018 that Mobile Police Officer Justin Billa was shot and killed, Officer Daniel McCarthy was the first person through the door of the home the shooter barricaded himself in afterward.
As a breacher with the Mobile Police Department (MPD) Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, McCarthy knew suspect Robert Hollie was willing to kill a police officer, but other details about the situation he and his team were about to storm into on Avondale Court were unclear.
“I remember turning the corner, and the very first thing I see is a shotgun sitting on the edge of the couch pointed directly at the door,” McCarthy recalled. “It turned out [Hollie] had taken his own life before we’d made entry, but we didn’t know that at the time. Knowing that he’d already taken one of our brothers from us and then seeing that gun sitting there right when we made entry, it was a humbling experience. It really puts everything into perspective.”
The circumstances of that night were no doubt extraordinary, but the tactics and movements McCarthy’s squad used to enter the home were second nature. Fluid, precise and almost choreographed, it was the same routine the team had performed hundreds of times before.
The familiarity of those individual roles comes from repetitive and near-constant training — a necessary part of the job because most every scene the SWAT team is called to is extremely volatile. Whether confronting armed suspects, hostage situations or high-risk warrants for violent offenders, the SWAT team does the work patrol officers cannot.
“It’s very much a chess game, and there’s no emotion in it,” MPD SWAT Commander Lt. Leland Terrell said. “Now, that doesn’t mean we’re not human and it doesn’t affect us, but we have to turn that off — table it and focus on whatever is going on in that moment. For us, there is no drama. It’s a mission. It’s a job, and everyone keeps their head in the game.”
‘A whole other level’
When a six-man team of highly trained, heavily armed officers kicks in a door, most suspects tend to comply with their orders. McCarthy said the “surprise and intimidation factor” can often resolve engagements before they start, bringing hardened criminals to quiet compliance.
“Believe it or not, some of the biggest guys — these ‘oh, I’m never going back to prison, let ‘em come in here and take me’ types — those are the ones that scream the loudest,” he said. “Once you hit the door, it just explodes open. What was a wall is now an opening, and you see everything before anybody else does. It’s almost like time slows down.”
While Terrell said the intent of the SWAT team isn’t to be intimidating, he acknowledged their presence sometimes has that effect. He prefers to describe the team’s deployment as MPD making a “show of force.” Either way, he’ll take a peaceful surrender “any day of the week.”
“If you see us, it means the department is ramping up. It’s getting serious, you can come on out or you can not,” he said. “We don’t just roll on everything. This is a whole other level of force.”
The weapons and tools a SWAT officer may have in their loadout depends on their role in the team and the situation they’re confronting. All of the officers have a standard-issue Glock 17 9mm pistol and an MK18 assault rifle, but snipers and less-lethal gunners can carry additional weapons as well.
The team also has body armor, ballistic shields and armored personnel carriers at its disposal.
They may look the part of any primetime cop drama, but Terrell said unlike those shows depicting SWAT teams in a constant barrage of gunfire, the overwhelming majority of calls in his 17-year career have ended peacefully and without a single shot being fired.
In fact, out of hundreds, he’s only seen four encounters end fatally for a suspect.
One was Corey Hicks, who was shot and killed by SWAT officers in July 2010. He was believed to have killed his mother in Florida, and when confronted by police at a hotel on the I-65 Service Road, he allegedly attacked them with a hatchet.
In 2012, after Lawrence Wallace Jr. stabbed MPD Officer Steven Green to death in transport to Mobile Metro Jail, he led police on a manhunt that concluded when members of the SWAT team killed him during a shootout as he hid beneath a house on Daytona Drive. Terrell didn’t recall the other two suspects offhand.
All told, MPD’s SWAT team responds to eight to 15 calls in an average month. In all of 2018, the team helped execute 84 arrest warrants — mostly for high-risk narcotics suspects — and responded to 36 unplanned incidents.
While MPD’s SWAT team is fully prepared to use lethal force when necessary, Terrell said his men are not anything resembling a “kill team.” Lethal force is deployed as the very last option when a suspect poses a threat to the public, to bystanders or to the officers themselves.
“In the end, we save a lot more lives than we’ve ever thought about taking, and most of the time what we’re actually doing is saving people from themselves,” Terrell said. “We deploy every tactic and every tool we have to resolve things peacefully, quietly and safely — safely for the guys on the team, safely for whoever else is around and also safely for the suspect.”
Last June, 23-year-old Levy Washington caused a four-hour standoff with members of the SWAT team during which he allegedly used his 4-year-old daughter as a human shield. Ultimately, Washington surrendered without incident and his daughter wasn’t harmed, but that call, in particular, is one that stood out to a team member who asked not to be identified.
“I have a soft spot for small children and the elderly, and I watched him hold that child at gunpoint for several hours, both through the camera on the robot and multiple times in person, because I had to place the robot in the room and remove it manually,” the officer said. “He and I made contact multiple times before we made entry that day.”
Officer Tanner Whipkey is tasked with using less-lethal weapons including tear gas, pepper spray, bean bag rounds and what are known as foam batons — what he described as “basically a doorknob” fired from a 40mm launcher at around 300 feet per second.
“More than likely, it’s going to make you want to change your mind,” he added.
Whipkey recalled one notable call that required firing more than 30 gas rounds into a home a suspect had barricaded himself in on Fairway Drive in Mobile. The incident led to the death of 20-year-old Brandon Davis in 2015.
At the time SWAT arrived on the scene, Davis had already shot one man multiple times, taken his own girlfriend hostage and fired upon the responding patrol MPD officers. Though the woman was able to escape, Davis retreated inside the two-story house and SWAT had to confront him.
“We start moving in toward the structure and we couldn’t see him, but we could hear him yelling and screaming: ‘eff you, come get me!’” Whipkey recalled. “We’re behind the Bearcat, fortunately undercover, and we could hear that he was shooting at us but we didn’t know where from. It made for an ideal time to launch gas to kind of push him to one area of the structure, so even though he’s shooting I’m having to get out from behind cover and I start to launch gas.”
Whipkey said Davis was one of the rare suspects who was able to “fight through” the tear gas that causes most people’s eyes and nose to run uncontrollably and their throat to feel like it’s closing up. He was believed to be under the influence of drugs at the time, according to MPD.
Eventually, after gas rounds had been fired through what Whipkey said was “every single window,” Davis fell silent. The call was eventually made to stack up and go into the house, but when officers made entry they found him dead with no “obvious signs of trauma.”
An autopsy and toxicology report performed on Davis identified his cause of death as “Acute Methamphetamine Toxicity,” according to an MPD spokesperson.
While the circumstances of a call can vary wildly, they are almost always dangerous for the responding officers. Terrell has spent years kicking in doors and facing down some of the most notorious and dangerous suspects in Mobile. It still doesn’t seem to faze him that much.
However, he did offer that one of the hardest parts of the job today is ordering others to do the same.
“We’re around each other more than we are our families a lot of times,” Terrell said. “There are still a lot of times I’d rather go in and do it myself rather than to put them in harm’s way.”
‘One hell of a commitment’
“I think everybody wants to do SWAT. When you’re a kid and you see that kind of stuff on TV — the loud noises, all the moving parts — it’s awesome,” McCarthy said. “Everybody wants to be the one to go in and get the bad guys … the real bad guys.”
McCarthy has worked with MPD since 2013. Like everyone in the department, he started as a patrol officer before transferring to a since-disbanded street enforcement unit under the special operations division. For the past three years, he’s been a full-time member of the SWAT team.
Currently, there are 13 officers on the SWAT team including Terrell, who joined in 2002. Terrell said being a member of SWAT is a physically and mentally demanding job not everyone is cut out for.
During tryouts, which are now only held when a position needs to be filled, SWAT hopefuls go through obstacle courses, climb high walls, sprint, run balance beams and pull a 225-pound sled meant to simulate the weight of a downed officer for long distances.
They then have to shoot a minimum of a 90 on a state qualifications firearms test before completing a combat course and performing the maximum number of pushups, situps, pull-ups, squats and sprints they’re capable of — all while wearing 40 pounds of tactical gear.
“If they don’t make any of those times or can’t physically do any of those things, they don’t continue on,” Terrell said. “You leave as soon as you fail any stage.”
Aside from each candidate’s individual abilities, Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste said the needs of the team have to be prioritized.
Battiste, a former SWAT commander himself, said the entire team has to work well together because there’s no room for second-guessing in a SWAT scenario. An hours-long standoff can instantly turn into an engagement with an armed suspect that may last just seconds.
“There has to be quite a bit of team cohesiveness. No one person is trying to be a superstar,” Battiste said. “On a SWAT operation, you can’t be wondering whether the guy next to you is going to do his job. You’re not going going to be looking to see if he went to the right when he was supposed to, you’ve got to know that he took care of his responsibility.”
As hard as it might be to get on the team, Terrell said staying there comes with its own set of challenges because of the nature of the job. SWAT officers are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It’s also hard to schedule around events you have no control over.
Members of the SWAT team can’t sit back and drink a few beers on a football Saturday because they could be called in to handle a life-or-death situation at any moment. They travel with their gear and weapons with them at all times because they have to be ready whenever MPD needs them.
“It’s a whole lifestyle change,” Terrell said. “We have to take into account things like going grocery shopping. If you go to the grocery store to get groceries you have to think: ‘Is that stuff going to make it to the house?’ And not all girlfriends understand what this job is, either. It’s tough on relationships. It’s tough on kids … daycare and childcare. It takes one hell of a commitment to stay on this team after you see how demanding it can be.”
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