When Baton Rouge police officer Antonio Williams was dispatched to a domestic violence call last month, he arrived on scene first, knocked on the apartment door and stepped back. Moments later, a woman came running out with blood spurting from stab wounds in her neck.

Her attacker remained inside the Greenwell Springs Road apartment, probably still armed with a knife, she told Williams. Then the man started walking toward the door, taking swigs from a bottle of vodka.

"At that point, I'm terrified. But I couldn't show her that," Williams said earlier this week, recounting the incident.

The young officer was about to face one of those split-second decisions that cops are trained to make, even under the most dangerous, volatile circumstances — decisions they often get right, but sometimes get wrong.

The stakes are so high, Williams said: life or death. Like most officers, he feels enormous pressure from all sides, especially at a time when police misconduct makes frequent headlines amid widespread demands for racial justice and anti-police rhetoric. One bad call could plague your conscience forever, end your career, disgrace your department and decimate public trust.

This is the reality of policing in America today, Williams said. But when you're navigating a dangerous situation in the field, you don't have time to weigh the pros and cons of all possible actions and outcomes. The adrenaline is pumping and you need to think fast, he said.

As the stabbing suspect approached him, Williams — still the only officer on scene — kept his gun trained on the man and repeatedly ordered him onto the ground, but to no avail. The suspect stood in the doorway and finished off his vodka, then tossed the bottle, belligerently denying he had harmed the victim.

Finally, he turned away from Williams and started to head back inside the apartment.

This was it, Williams said, the decisive moment when, by the grace of God, he made the right call.

In an instant, he holstered his gun, drew his taser and pulled the trigger, disabling the retreating man just as he crossed the threshold and swung the door closed behind him. The situation was instantly deescalated, Williams said.

The suspect, later identified as Warren Pierce, was handcuffed and taken into custody without further struggle. He was booked into jail on attempted second-degree murder, and the victim was hospitalized for treatment following the July 18 incident. Officials said she survived her injuries.

In describing his thought process during the brief encounter with Pierce, Williams offered a rare window into the mind of a police officer making a tough call, the sort of routine decision-making that cops train for throughout their careers.

Williams said he believed Pierce had a knife in his pocket, but the man wasn't brandishing a weapon or acting openly threatening; he was simply refusing to comply. Even when he turned around, his hands were swinging by his sides, not reaching for anything, Williams said.

"You have to think about a lot and process everything around you, all the while doing the right thing to save somebody's life," he said. "Because at the end of the day, we're public servants."

When Pierce started walking away, Williams lowered his firearm and grabbed the stun gun, a move he called risky but prudent under the circumstances.

"You have to think so fast, and you can make the wrong decision," he said. "Let's face it — this is a risky job. I took a risk."

If Williams had not acted so quickly and Pierce had retreated fully into the residence, Williams said he would have stayed outside and waited for backup to arrive because entering the apartment alone was unsafe. Once the door closed behind him, Pierce would have been considered a barricaded suspect, requiring assistance from the SWAT team. That could prolong his interaction with police and introduce more opportunities for the situation to escalate.

Williams said he breathed a sigh of relief when the incident was over, knowing things could have easily gone south.

After five years on the police force, he's never had to shoot at a suspect. He hopes to keep it that way.

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"When he first started ignoring commands, I thought he was gonna end up shot. And I was terrified because I would have to do it," Williams said. "You never want to use your gun. That's a last resort."

However, data shows domestic violence calls are more volatile than most. Several cases in recent years have ended with Baton Rouge police officers either using deadly force or being injured in gunfire.

Williams was already acutely aware of the dangers and pitfalls of police work when he applied to join the Baton Rouge Police Department. His academy class started training just months after the 2016 fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, which drew widespread protests against police brutality when the deadly encounter was captured on cellphone video and shared on social media. The incident prompted a series of reforms at BRPD and the officer who pulled the trigger, Blane Salamoni, lost his job.

Several days after the shooting, protests were winding down in Baton Rouge when a lone gunman opened fire on local law enforcement outside an Airline Highway convenience store, leaving three officers dead and three more wounded in the ambush. 

Williams, 27, said watching those tragedies unfold only strengthened his desire to become a BRPD officer, a relatively unusual childhood dream among Black boys growing up in Baton Rouge. The department has long struggled to grow the ranks of Black officers and continues actively recruiting minorities.

Williams was raised in the Villa del Rey neighborhood — an area he now patrols. He often encounters people he knows from childhood, but said that doesn't change how he treats them in uniform.

After escalating debates about race and policing rocked the nation last year following the death of George Floyd, Williams said he became frustrated with some of the rhetoric.

"I can't stand when someone throws the race card," he said. "It's about right and wrong, not white and black. It always has been for me."

Williams said he hopes that by sharing his story, more people will see policing from his perspective.

"The negative stories are sometimes all the public sees," he said. "But the vast majority of us are not rogue cops. We're out trying to save lives."

Law enforcement agencies across the country are struggling with low morale after months of heated criticism from the public coupled with pandemic stress and increased violent crime.

Williams, who works in Third District uniform patrol, said he understands that officers are tired and frustrated, but his optimism and resolve are strong as ever. He plans to spend his career at the Baton Rouge Police Department, an agency he loves despite some significant challenges: rampant gun violence, low officer pay and internal strife. 

"I wouldn't change my job for anything in the world," Williams said, beaming with satisfaction. Then he laughed at himself and shook his head, searching for the words to describe this profound sense of belonging. 

He regularly writes motivational quotes on the office whiteboard, hoping to help his colleagues find some light in the darkness. He said some officers act like they ignore the messages, but they notice whenever he misses a few days. 

Several weeks ago, one of the officers in his squad was patrolling around an apartment complex when an unidentified person shot at the passing police car. A bullet shattered the back window and lodged inside the interior of the vehicle, barely missing its driver.

Williams said he was pretty nervous after that, as were his colleagues — "but it's the job."

He said helping people on the worst days of their lives, like the stabbing victim on Greenwell Springs Road, outweighs the inherent risks of police work.

How did Williams celebrate after that call ended successfully, with the victim hospitalized and her attacker taken off the street? He switched on his radio, back in service and ready for the next call.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.