On April 1, 2004, police tried to take Thomas George Norbeck, a 61-year-old schizophrenic man, into custody for a mental evaluation. Norbeck answered the door holding a gun.
Police shot him twice with bean-bag rounds. But Norbeck scurried back into his home on Western Boulevard and began firing.
Police shot back, and Norbeck was killed.
A year later at the coroner’s inquest, Sgt. Corey St. Pierre learned how close he had come to the same fate. A SWAT team sniper, St. Pierre had taken cover behind a hedge.
“The path of his bullet was six inches above my head,” Sgt. St. Pierre recalled.
Since the county formed its first SWAT team in 1989, its members have been at the center of nearly every major police
incident. Ten-hour standoffs in 10-below weather to drug busts to shootouts with armed suspects — the elite SWAT team handles the most serious, the most
“There are not a lot of people who want to run toward these
situations,” said Capt. Mark St. Pierre, the team’s commander.
Butte’s team has 10 members, all specially trained — and
specially armed — for crisis
situations outside the scope of uniformed police work. Their equipment and training is
modeled on military practices and continues to evolve.
The public first saw military-style police units in action during California’s farm labor strikes of the 1960s. Since then, nearly every major city has formed an elite police unit, and philosophies and training have increasingly shifted from using brute force to tactics aimed at alleviating potentially deadly situations.
Today, Butte’s SWAT team, like others in the country, makes high-risk arrests, handles standoffs and hostage situations, and confronts armed suspects like Norbeck.
At the coroner’s inquest in that case, a state investigator testified the shots through the hedge at Sgt. St. Pierre were the strongest evidence that police used appropriate force. It was the last time a SWAT member shot a suspect in Butte.
“I just watched one of my coworkers get shot”
Nine years to the day after the Norbeck shootout, April Fool’s Day 2013, the SWAT team was in another standoff. And this time, an officer was the victim.
It is still not known if Lt. Jeff Williams caught a bullet fragment in his arm or if ricocheting metal from a shot wheel penetrated his skin. Whatever caused the wound remains in his left bicep.
The suspect, Ryan Patrick Maloney, is still in jail on charges stemming from the three-hour standoff.
SWAT members responded to Maloney’s home on Dewey Boulevard after a report of a suicidal and heavily armed man waving guns. Three children were in the home.
Maloney allegedly fired a rifle shot through the wall, striking Williams, who was behind a vehicle parked in the garage.
Sgt. St. Pierre was two feet behind his team leader. He pressed his finger into the wound to apply pressure.
“I just watched one of my coworkers get shot,” he said. “I had to compose myself.”
Sgt. St. Pierre took Williams to a neighboring home and returned to the standoff, where he helped talk Maloney into surrendering. St. Pierre and the suspect had grown up together.
“It feels like you’re suffocating”
Of all the weapons at the SWAT team’s disposal, the non-lethal ones are sometimes the most effective. In 2005, the team flooded a home on Dakota Street with gas, hoping to flush out Kerry Robert Brown.
The 51-year-old triggered an 18-hour standoff after threatening to blow himself up with a bomb. At one point, Brown tossed an explosive attached to a lit firecracker. Lucky for the SWAT team, it didn’t go off.
The neighborhood was evacuated.
Tim McMahon, one of the SWAT team’s experts on entries and chemical-agent deployment, said gas was used to push Brown out of the house.
“The chemical agents push people to fresh air,” McMahon said.
Gas and pepper spray are essential for the team. Flash bangs, non-lethal explosive devices used to disorient suspects, are another common tool.
As a “gas guy,” McMahon was exposed to the chemical agents in his training to learn what suspects feel and how to react if he accidentally became exposed.
“It’s a burning, prickling sensation that hits any area you sweat,” he said.
The gas also irritates the respiratory system.
“It feels like you’re suffocating,” McMahon said.
Once sprayed in the training, he had to fight. Five punches, elbows and knee strikes later, the chemicals took full effect, he said. The last test was to grab a specific colored marker from the tester’s hand.
“I had to deliberately pry my eyes open to see the color red,” McMahon recalled.
“It’s the unity, the team”
Capt. St. Pierre wanted to be on the SWAT from the moment he joined the force. Once he got his two-year patrol prerequisite met in 1993, he applied.
“SWAT are the most motivated,” he said, “and I wanted to be associated with that group.”
More than anything, it’s the camaraderie that draws members to the team.
“It’s the unity, the team,” said Kevin Maloughney, a detective and SWAT member. “It’s rewarding to be part of an elite team and knowing you’ve accomplished something you had to work hard for.”
The members are competitive but push each other to achieve. There’s also a bit of good-natured ribbing.
“We can joke around with each other, and that makes the stressful situations better,” Maloughney said.
Another bonus: Most of the department’s top brass are former SWAT members.
“They’re very good at what they do; there’s no question about that,” said Sheriff Ed Lester, who served on the team from 1992 to 2009.
In 2008, the team competed in a national competition, beating much larger groups from major metropolises. SWAT members also help trained uniformed police in the department, bringing them up to speed on the latest policing techniques.
“That’s been the whole attitude since I’ve been on the team,” Lester said. “We don’t want to be standoffish with the other officers.
“Their dedication is above and beyond,” the sheriff said.
“She’s a stud”
When Callie Daly joined SWAT last year, she became the first woman ever on the Butte team. She served eight years as an officer on the force before trying out.
Daly said after previously playing sports, she longed for the team spirit.
“When something goes bad, I want to be there and be dependable,” she said.
While working for the Butte Prerelease Center and a youth corrections facility, two police that just happened to be SWAT members repeatedly told Daly she should be a cop.
“She’s a good person and that’s why I wanted to and did recruit her,” Sgt. St. Pierre said.
Impressed by Daly’s drive and athleticism, Sgt. St. Pierre and Anthony Jurenic won her over.
“Regardless of male or female, she’s a good cop,” Sgt. St. Pierre said. “She’s a stud.”
Although intimidated by the testing for SWAT, Daly had no problems making the cut. To be a member of the team, officers must perform 100 percent on a shooting test, complete an obstacle course in about two minutes less than the regular police cut-off time and do 35 pushups, five dips and five pull ups.
“I felt like I’d be supported,” Daly said.
“I do everything the same way. I’m just a little smaller than some of the guys,” she said.
“Once in full gear, you look like another one of the guys.”
“Our stuff right now is light years ahead”
As training tactics have progressed, so has the SWAT weaponry.
When Sheriff Lester joined SWAT in 1992, four years after it started, the team was still using two Thompson submachine guns – the same kind used by gangsters in the 1920s.
The team’s shooting range was on farmland near Whitehall. They had to shoo away cows before target practice.
Now, each member has an AR -15 assault rifle in addition to their duty pistol, a .40-caliber Glock. Each sniper has a rifle.
“Our stuff right now is light years ahead,” Capt. St. Pierre said. “Our team is really well outfitted now.”
When he first started with the team, Capt. St. Pierre didn’t have an entry vest, which has heighten bullet protection and other amenities. They used their patrol vests.
The current team has a supped-up trailer to haul its gear.
Capt. St. Pierre’s original crew had an old service van donated by Montana Power. The vehicle was more of a do-it-yourself project, and the group installed its own gun racks and other necessities.
“Our commitment to citizens was so above the gear we had,” he said. “That is one thing that hasn’t changed.”
“We’re not going in there blazing away”
In addition to the machinery, the philosophy of SWAT has shifted over the years.
Maloughney has 17 years in law enforcement under his belt. In the past, he’s seen “knock down the door and go get them” procedures. This is the old way.
“Now we are revising our tactics. We’re not going in there blazing away,” he said. “Things are definitely changing for good.”
As part of the team’s ongoing training, members are learning to work more with specially trained negotiators. The group meets monthly to train. They plan, do scenarios based on real-life incidents and debrief. Sometimes the planned techniques work, other times the members have to improvise.
“The last thing we want is someone to get hurt,” Lester said. That includes suspects, civilians and officers.
The nature of the calls remain high risk, but the timing and responses differ. Officers are taught to wait out situations where there is not an imminent threat.
“We’re trying to get away from making a lot of entries,” Lester said. “We don’t want to provoke any kind of incident that could have ended peacefully.”