NOPD SWAT

“Something bad is going to happen, either today or tomorrow,” Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann said. “I can promise you that.” Scheuermann is a deputy commander of the New Orleans Police Department’s Special Operations Division.

He spoke those words the morning of Dec. 20, 2007, little more than an hour before the New Orleans City Council was scheduled to cast its final vote on the demolition of four of the city’s sprawling, hurricane-damaged housing projects. Protesters were already lined up at City Hall, and NOPD’s Tactical Unit – the SWAT team – was on full alert.

In the days leading up the council vote, the SWAT team had been dealing with harassment from radical activists at the B.W. Cooper and St. Bernard projects. The tension was building and Scheuermann suspected it was about to boil over.

The protesters themselves were the subject of much of the controversy. Several prominent New Orleanians, including a couple of council members, charged that many of the protesters were out-of-town, Birkenstock-clad agitators who had never set foot inside a New Orleans housing development until news cameras showed up.
Recent developments seemed to bolster that claim.

After a three-hour standoff at B.W. Cooper – the old Calliope project – SWAT officers arrested two 50-something-year-old protesters from Brooklyn. Other public housing activists turned out to be Ivy League college students on Christmas break.

“We’ve seen a lot of Volvos,” one city official said.

To further harass the police, some protesters used “sleeping dragons,” a device made from a section of reinforced PVC pipe. Protesters shove their arms into each end of the pipe and link hands to form a human chain. The day before the council vote, SWAT members had to spend hours cutting the trespassing activists out of the sleeping dragons before they could arrest them.

NOPD SWATThat task was complicated significantly because some protesters had rigged their sleeping dragons with electrical wires to make them look like bombs, said Capt. Bobby Norton, commander of the Special Operations Division. NOPD Bomb technicians had to “render safe” each suspicious device before cutting through it.

Another protester arrested at B.W. Cooper was a woman who goes by the name Bork. Jim Arey, a forensic psychologist and the civilian head of NOPD’s crisis negotiation team, interviewed Bork after her arrest. For the last 10 years, Arey said, Bork, from West Virginia, has been a self-described professional protester, traveling the country from one demonstration to another and living off what she refers to as “grants.” Arey said he suspects the grants are really government disability checks.

Back at City Hall, Scheuermann and 10 SWAT officers took up positions inside the council chamber to protect the council members, while a few blocks away in an empty Superdome parking lot, Capt. Norton set up the unit’s mobile command post.

Meanwhile, Intelligence Division commander, Capt. Jeff Winn, and 50 district task force officers were stationed at an undisclosed off-site location to act as a quick reaction force in case things went to hell.

Stationed nearby on Girod Street were EMS units, a fire truck, and the New Orleans Fire Department’s Flying Squad.

Across the street from City Hall, on the 17th floor of a hotel, SOD commanders had installed a “black team,” a surveillance unit, to act as the eyes of the SWAT team. Ringed around City Hall were dozens of uniformed police officers and the mounted unit.

Inside the high-tech mobile command post, it was Norton’s job to control the chaos. Hanging on the back wall of the CP was a flat-panel television screen that showed a satellite picture of the area around City Hall. Norton used computer graphics to add street and building names to the picture.

As overall commander of the operation, Norton had to be ready for anything the protesters threw at him – before, during and even after the council meeting. “We don’t know where they’re going to go or what they’re going to do,” he said.

On the steps of City Hall, a local rapper and political activist, who uses the name Sess 4-5, gave a sort of press conference. There wasn’t much press at the conference, mostly just other activists with camcorders.

“We are here on behalf of the people,” Sess 4-5 shouted for the cameras.
Next to him stood Sharon Jasper, a lifelong project resident and recent housing activist. Jasper wore a T-shirt imprinted with photographs of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Above the photos, in large block letters, were the words “Wanted for Mass Murder.”

Behind Sess 4-5 and Jasper stood an unidentified activist, a tall man with long dreadlocks, wearing a brown T-shirt. Soon all three of them would be involved in a raucous confrontation with SWAT officers.

NOPD SWATEarlier that morning, Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann had said he felt something bad was going to happen. He was right.

SWAT isn’t the only component of the Special Operations Division. In addition to the gunslingers in the Tactical Unit (commonly called SWAT), SOD includes the Violent Offender Warrant Squad, the bomb squad, the marine unit and the dive team. Actual SWAT members number only about 60 officers. They are organized into three platoons: Tac 1, Tac 2 and Tac 3.

Special Operations is based on Moss Street, beside the abandoned 3rd District station. Before the storm, the SWAT team was housed in an old two-story brick schoolhouse but since Katrina washed four feet of water into the building, the team has been crammed into two doublewide trailers – one for the platoons, the other for the rank. The trailers sit parked beside the team’s old building.

At one end of the administration trailer there is a pair of cramped offices belonging to Capt. Norton and Lt. Scheuermann. The air conditioning only works in one office and the heat doesn’t work in either. Each trailer has a single toilet that drains into a plastic bladder on the ground behind it. The bladders fill up so quickly and get emptied so infrequently that the male officers mostly use a makeshift urinal behind the old schoolhouse so that the female officers can use the two bathrooms.

Common office supplies are in short supply. Team members buy most of them out of their own pockets. New cars are also hard to find.

What’s not hard to find is esprit de corps. Team members are proud to be part of SWAT. A T-shirt seen recently on one member says it best: “NOPD SWAT. The Final Option.” When things go bad, police officers call SWAT.

They are the Police Department’s 9-1-1.

Getting into SWAT is tough. The training is tough. The hours are tough. Officers can’t apply to SWAT. They have to be chosen.

To be considered, prospective team members must have distinguished themselves in some other specialized unit. Most are recruited from district task forces. Some come from narcotics units. Candidates have to be aggressive, physically fit and intelligent. They must possess good street sense and, most importantly, they have to be team players.

They are the best of the best.

“We don’t want any rebels out here or any rogues,” says Sgt. Hans Ganthier, one of two sergeants on Tac 3. “The difference between our unit and the districts is that all of our guys are hand-picked.”

NOPD SWATCandidates also need a record of making solid felony arrests. They need good courtroom presence and excellent shooting skills.

The first step to become a member of a SWAT platoon is an interview with the platoon sergeants. If passed, then it’s on to an interview with the rest of the platoon. A good reputation is essential. Perhaps more than with any other unit within a police department, SWAT members have to trust each other. “When you go through a door and go left,” Ganthier says, “you’ve got to trust that the guy behind you is going right.”

If a candidate passes the interviews and gets a vote of confidence from his or her prospective platoon mates, the next step is a series of physical agility tests: running, push-ups, sit-ups and the all-important shooting test. Poor shots get washed out, Ganthier says.

All newly selected team members have to pass a tough two-week SWAT school. The curriculum includes advanced weapons training, entry techniques, hostage rescue, crowd control and physical fitness.

SWAT handles the most dangerous assignments the Police Department has – high-risk warrants, barricaded suspects, hostage situations, proactive patrol in high-crime neighborhoods and security for special events. Cohesion among team members is a must. “They see each other more than they see their families,” Ganthier says.   

At City Hall, on the morning of the decisive City Council vote, civil sheriff’s deputies let 278 spectators into the council chamber – the room’s maximum capacity, according to the fire marshal – then shut the door. Those protesters who didn’t get in were furious they’d been left standing outside. Above them, storm clouds closed in.

Inside, the deputies were having trouble controlling the unruly crowd. Several protesters refused to sit down, including local rapper Sess 4-5 and the man in the brown T-shirt.

Local housing activist Sharon Jasper, the woman wearing the “Wanted for Murder” T-shirt who had stood beside Sess 4-5 during his press conference, took a seat for a minute, then stood up and fired off a racist rant at a middle-aged white man seated behind her. When the man tried to make a point, Jasper jabbed her finger at him and shouted: “Shut up, white boy. Shut up, white boy.”

Two days earlier, Jasper had been featured in a Times-Picayune article in which she called her government-subsidized apartment, located in a recently renovated house in Faubourg St. John, a “slum.” The photograph that accompanied the article showed Jasper seated on a sofa in her apartment. The rooms visible in the photo appeared well appointed, with nice furniture and hardwood floors. Next to Jasper stood a 60-inch flat-screen television. In the photo caption Jasper was quoted as saying, “I thank God for a place to live but it’s pitiful what people give you.”

NOPD SWATInside the council chamber, the protesters began to chant, “Let the people in. Let the people in.”

Meanwhile, Sess 4-5 berated the council. “Who talking about the people? Who talking about the homeless? I’m from the project and I’m fighting for my people.”
Krystal Muhammad, a member of the Houston chapter of the New Black Panther Party, shouted at the council members, who had not yet taken their seats. “Bring your coward selves out here and let our people in here,” Muhammad said. “It don’t make no sense. Black people want to come and stand for something and you want to lock us out like we slaves on your plantation.”

As the council members prepared to take their seats, they were met with jeers and curses. The start of the meeting was running late. Civil sheriff’s deputies asked everyone in the audience to sit down so the meeting could begin. Sess 4-5 refused. He remained standing in front of the first row of seats and continued shouting at the council.

A deputy took hold of his arm and again asked him to sit down. The rapper jerked his arm away. “Why you pulling on me?” he said.

When the deputy tried to escort Sess 4-5 from the council chamber, the room erupted. As sheriff’s deputies struggled with the rapper-turned-activist, the man in the brown T-shirt and dreadlocks jumped into the fray. Then a heavyset woman grabbed a deputy from behind and dragged him backward 10 feet from the scuffle. The deputies had lost control of the situation.

The SWAT team stepped in. With Superintendent Warren Riley and Deputy Chief Bruce Adams looking on, SWAT officers used Tasers and empty-hand control techniques to restore order. Within a minute or two they had several agitators in handcuffs, including Sess 4-5, Krystal Muhammad and the man in the brown T-shirt.
As SWAT officers led Sess 4-5 from the council chamber, a Times-Picayune reporter asked him what his real name was.

“Fuck off,” he said.

On her way out the door, Krystal Muhammad spit on a white Associated Press photographer.

Outside, the chaos continued. About a hundred protesters rallied just beyond the iron gates at the front of the breezeway that separates City Hall from the council chamber. They held signs, chanted and spouted conspiracy theories.

“They sent that water in here,” one woman screamed. “They blew them levees. They been planning this since Day One.”

Inside the gates, SWAT members and district task force officers formed a secondary line of defense.

Soon it would be tested.

“From the project to the street,” the crowd chanted. “No justice, no peace.”
Following the scuffle inside, police officers escorted the protesters they had arrested to a paddy wagon waiting behind City Hall. When the crowd outside saw their compatriots being hauled off to jail, they surged forward and began pulling on the gates.

A few minutes later, the set of leg irons that had been holding the gates closed broke loose. The crowd flung the gates open and tried to storm the building. “We going [to] fight!” a female protester shrieked. “We going [to] fight!”

Sheriff’s deputies ordered everyone back but the wild-eyed protesters were beyond listening to reason. The deputies tried to pull the gates closed but they quickly lost the tug-of-war to the hostile crowd.

Again, SWAT had to step in.

Lt. Scheuermann, who had been in the thick of the melee inside, was in the breezeway monitoring the rapidly deteriorating situation. After the deputies lost control of the gates, Scheuermann led several SWAT officers into the crowd.

The protesters were frenzied but unorganized and seemed unsure what to do after finally getting what they wanted – a clear path into the breezeway.

Scheuermann and the rest of the SWAT officers suffered no such uncertainty. They knew what they were doing. They pushed back against the crowd, which by that point had become a mob, and seized hold of the gates. Protesters who refused to back off got hit with pepper spray and Tasers. Several fell to the ground. At least two were carted off by ambulance, including Bork, the professional protester from West Virginia who had been arrested at the B.W. Cooper project the day before.

Shortly after the mini-riot, Police Superintendent Warren Riley gave an impromptu press conference under the breezeway. He said SWAT team members had done what was necessary to defend themselves and to regain control of the situation.

After tangling with the SWAT team, most of the protesters lost their taste for direct confrontation – except for one man. Dressed in a homemade hazmat suit, he made a half-hearted attempt to open the gates again but gave up when Deputy Chief Bruce Adams threatened to arrest him.

When the promised rainstorm finally hit, the crowd melted away.

Inside the meeting room, the much talked about racial split of the City Council never happened. The council voted unanimously to demolish the four projects.

Despite the ruckus inside the council chamber and the street battle outside, no one was seriously hurt and only a dozen protesters had to be arrested. For the SWAT team, it was another successful mission.

SWAT commanders hope to get a new home soon. They say the city is looking at a 90,000-square-foot building on Tchoupitoulas Street that could house everything under one roof – office space, equipment storage and training facilities. But most of the SWAT team’s rank-and-file members have their sights set on the simpler things in life – such as functioning toilets.

Regardless of whether they get the new space or not, SWAT, because of its careful selection, rigorous training and strong camaraderie, will continue to be the best of the best.

They are the Police Department’s 9-1-1.

Chuck Hustmyre is a freelance writer and author of the true crime books An Act of Kindness and Killer with a Badge and the novel House of the Rising Sun.