When Ronald Johnson refused to come out of his house on North Buckeye Street last week, the Kokomo Police Department’s SWAT unit sprang into action.
Police say Johnson, who is a suspect in a sexual battery case, threatened the alleged victim in the case with a handgun, setting the stage for a police standoff.
After repeated efforts to coax Johnson from the house failed, SWAT members surrounded the house and fired a “flash bang” device into the house. Moments later, Johnson walked out the front door with hands raised and surrendered without injury.
Maj. Anthony Arnett, a 13-year veteran of SWAT, said that peaceful conclusion is how most SWAT call-outs end.
The incident with Johnson is just one of numerous calls KPD’s SWAT unit has been called to this year.
SWAT is often called to assist in serving high-risk arrest warrants, performing hostage rescue or armed intervention when someone barricades himself in a home or building or to engage heavily armed people, said Arnett.
In last week’s call-out, SWAT was needed since Johnson refused to come out of his house and was possibly armed.
Going into situations like that can be dangerous.
“You never know what you’re going up against,” Arnett said.
“There’s always that nervousness — not really scared. You don’t know 100 percent how it’s going to play out.”
In last week’s call-out, Arnett and the other members were training with police negotiators on the south end of town when they heard the incident unveiling, he recalled.
“We were already in SWAT mode,” Arnett said. “We were waiting for the word.”
When it comes to the number of call-outs, Arnett said it varies from year to year.
“Some years we will have 50 call-outs, and other years we have 10.”
Led by Cmdr. Capt. Robert Salinas, the SWAT team of 14 fortunately hasn’t had any deaths or any members shot during police action, but members have had to fire on a suspect a few times in the past.
The latest came in October 2003, when an Ohio fugitive was shot by a Kokomo SWAT team member.
The fugitive, Steve A. Murphy, 52, was injured, but survived.
Murphy was shot once in the abdomen after he allegedly held police at bay for two hours at an apartment in the Walnut Creek complex on the city’s far southeast side.
“We’re very fortunate,” said Arnett, who serves as assistant commander. “I like to believe it’s because we have highly trained officers on this team.”
Often, he said, SWAT units are portrayed in a bad light, which is not the case with this unit.
“People see SWAT on TV and the movies, showing SWAT unloading thousands of rounds and tearing up houses. It’s not like that. It’s all about safety,” said Arnett. “We are a life-saving unit.”
Unlike in larger cities, Kokomo and Howard County’s SWAT members are regular officers who work a scheduled shift and are called to SWAT assignments when needed.
The SWAT members have been through specialized SWAT training and have additional training once a month.
“We have a very specialized group of guys,” Arnett said. “We have a K-9 unit, bomb technicians and highly trained veterans.”
When it comes to training, Arnett said members prepare for the unknown. Incidents like school shootings or the Boston Marathon bombings are incidents that aren’t expected, but SWAT has to train for them, just in case.
“We try to stay on top of new things,” he said. “Like the Wal-Mart incident where a guy takes a child hostage. You never expect you have to shoot someone in a Wal-Mart. We have to train for anything.”
When called to an incident, members are tasked with lugging around 60 to 65 pounds of tactical gear, which includes a BDU or Battle Dress Uniform consisting of camouflage pants and shirt, a helmet, eye protection, elbow and knee pads, protective boots, a gas mask, a fully automatic rifle and ammunition. SWAT also has access to ballistic shields and less-than-lethal weapons, which include bean bag rounds, rubber bullets and Tasers.
Like KPD’S SWAT unit, the Howard County Sheriff’s Department SWAT handles barricaded subjects, hostage negotiations, high-risk warrants and search warrants, Cmdr. Capt. Greg Hargrove said.
“We probably average four or five times a year,” he said of the number of call-outs.
“We also have a local agreement with Tipton where our SWAT unit and dive teams get called out. We probably have more calls in Tipton than we do here,” he said.
The team consists of nine deputies and two medics.
When his unit is called to a situation, Hargrove said the key is gathering as much information as possible before going into action.
“Usually there’s an officer on the scene setting up perimeters and giving us information. Plus we have hostage negotiators who set up a report with the subject.
“We try to gear up for the worst case,” he said. “A lot of it is gathering information and making sure our facts are correct and set up some kind of communication.”
Instead of having a deputy on the scene rush in with adrenaline pumping, SWAT members and negotiators can keep the situation under control.
“It gives the suspects time to regroup and think about what they’re doing. We basically defuse the situation. It gives everybody time to take a breath,” Hargrove said. “Suspects are more willing to talk to you. We’re there to back up the negotiators.”
The sheriff’s department SWAT, like KPD’s, has not had any major injuries or shootings.
“Knock on wood. I think we had a guy slip on the ice going up to a house. Besides that, we’ve had no major incidents or major injuries,” Hargrove said.
The commander also said his team trains with Kokomo SWAT in case a situation like Columbine or Sandy Hook happens.
“It gets pretty taxing,” he said of the training. “We can’t wait for something bad to happen. We have to have a plan beforehand.”