NORTH HOLLYWOOD SHOOTOUT

An event that took place in February 28th 1997. A series of bank robberies culminated in quite possibly the most violent shootout in modern American police history. The lives of 36 patrons and 12 employees were endangered when two heavily armed men wearing body armor decided to rob the Bank of America in North Hollywood. Seen entering the bank by Los Angeles police officers, the two men intimidated employees and patrons by firing shots inside while not realizing that Los Angeles police officers were surrounding the building. As they left the bank, the robbers became aware of their predicament and began shooting at police and civilians. 

Three civilians and nine officers were shot within the first five minutes of the shootout, and a total of 350 officers were called to the scene. As police bullets bounced off the suspects, it became evident that the two men were wearing body armor and had out-gunned the police with their armor piercing bullets and semiautomatic weapons. A total of seven civilians and eleven LAPD officers were injured. Despite the overwhelming odds, many heroic officers, while in grave danger, initiated officer and citizen rescues as the suspects continued to exchange shots with other officers. The suspects fired more than 1,100 rounds from their semiautomatic assault rifles. Eventually, one suspect committed suicide and members of the LAPD SWAT team shot and killed the other.

North Hollywood bank Shootout map

According to Commander Scott LaChasse of the Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) Criminal Intelligence Group and Lt. Tom Runyan, Commanding Officer of the LAPD SWAT, during the shootout at the bank, the suspects fired an estimated 1,110 rounds from three fully automatic AK-47s, a .223 fully automatic Bushmaster rifle, a .308 semiautomatic H&K and a semiautomatic 9mm Beretta handgun. One squad car sustained 57 hits. A sidewalk kiosk, used for cover by officers on the scene, was perforated with 150 bullets.

After the shooting stopped, more than 2,000 live rounds were found in the suspects' vehicle. Drums loaded with additional ammunition were found on the suspects' bodies. Eleven police officers were injured. One officer went down in an exposed area. He was in jeopardy of execution until another officer, defying incoming rounds, drove a squad car to the downed officer and rescued him. Fortunately, none of the officers were killed.
 
 
The following is the chronology of the incident:
0900 PST - LAPD receive a bank robbery alarm at the Bank of America branch on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood.

0938 PST - Two heavily armed men wearing ski masks emerge from the bank.

0951 PST - One gunman fires at officers and uses the getaway car as cover in the bank parking lot. At the street he leaves the cover of the car. He continues to fire at police and television news helicopters. He is shot in the head and killed.

0952 PST - The second suspect leaves the bank parking lot in the getaway car and drives into a residential neighborhood.

0956 PST - The gunman stops at a pickup truck, in which a wise civilian has abandoned during the incident. The suspect begins to transfer weapons from the car to the truck and gets in. Brave police officers approach, he gets out and there is a fierce firefight. The suspect is fatally wounded by officers.

1100 PST - The LAPD announces that the two suspects have been killed. Police continue to search for any additional bank robbers.

2300 PST - Search for any other suspects is called off.
 

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What Small and Large Agencies Can Learn

One of the most compelling deadly force confrontations was played out for the entire world to see when the Los Angeles Police Department responded to a bank robbery of monumental proportions and of great tactical significance. Very few shootouts have provided us with the significant learning points that the North Hollywood Bank Robbery Shootout embodied.

This incident, if reviewed with an eye toward "social" significance and recent law enforcement history in mind, is also an example of long held beliefs and traditional law enforcement concepts that are always under attack, but have been validated as the right way to train the police, because of this shooting.

In order to evaluate this shooting with clarity, it is necessary to separate the significant issues and learning points by category. As the bank robbery was discovered by alert patrol officers, this analysis will begin with the category of initial response. An assessment of weaponry used by the police as well as those used by the suspects will follow. As review of the body armor issues from the armor worn by the police to the armor worn by the suspects will occur. Following the armor review, an inspection of the response and actions of the Los Angeles Police SWAT team will be done. Finally, a discussion of the long term significance of this incident and how it may change law enforcement for the better will follow.
 

INITIAL OBSERVATION RESPONSE

Uniform patrol officers were on routine patrol when they saw the bank robbers with ski masks over their faces and assault rifles in hand entering the bank. Immediate communication of what the officers had observed resulted in rapid response and excellent containment around the bank by the patrol forces that responded. As the robbers fired their assault rifles inside the bank and physically assaulted the men, women, and children who were employees and customers in the bank, the patrol containment grew. Many minutes went by while the robbers made every effort to steal all the money they could carry. More than three hundred and thirty thousand dollars was taken at gunpoint.

As the robbers exited the bank, they were ordered to "freeze, drop your guns!" The robbers opened up on the patrol officers and the citizens in the community with a barrage of .223 and .308 gunfire both semi-automatic and full automatic. It was obvious to the officers that they were being shot at and wounded by a barrage of heavy weapons fire. This weapons fire was also wounding citizens trapped behind cars, proned out in streets and parking lots, fleeing on foot and in vehicles from the area. It was also obvious that the police were not going away. Although the officers were outgunned and out equipped, the patrol containment was complete, remained steadfast, and would not let the heavily armed suspects leave. There was a heavy price to pay for this bravery and devotion to duty.

The initial observation and rapid deployment was accomplished through professional fundamental training. There is no question that cover and concealment aided officers in reducing the number that were wounded, but the incredible level of violence that was directed at the police and the sheer volume of gunfire that the suspects directed at the officers over a long period of time speaks volumes about their quality and performance of the patrol officers.

As the suspects fled the bank and began their murderous full automatic assault rifle attack on the patrol officers, it was apparent that they were attempting to breach an escape route through the uniformed containment. The fact that a large number of officers were able to respond and deploy was a big component of a brave effort to hold the suspects at the bank.

Large departments have an advantage in the availability of large numbers of officers to respond. The LAPD had approximately 15 patrol officers deployed around all four sides of the bank as the suspects exited. Small agencies must work together to ensure that similar crimes that are predictably going to happen to them have a multi-agency response that replicates a large agency activation. If only four or five officers were on scene at the North Hollywood Bank of America, the suspects would have breached containment the suspects would have been able to concentrate focus and gunfire on more specific targets.

Several years ago, a similar robbery in the community of Norco, California, created a shootout of parallel dimensions. Five suspects with assault rifles and explosives robbed the bank in Norco and fled. They shot eleven police officers, killing one, and shot down a police helicopter during a pursuit that lasted for over an hour. Eventually all suspects were captured or killed, but the cost was high.
 

BODY ARMOR - BANDITS AND SWAT

We can learn much about body armor from the North Hollywood Shootout. While the suspects had armored themselves to the point they were protected from their feet to their necks, it was obvious they had "overdone" it. They were unable to move swiftly and with tactical flexibility and this hampered their ability to escape. They were unable to "flex" to the degree that they needed to take complete cover positions behind low profile cover. The SWAT officers that responded had a reasonable level of tactical armor protection and had mobility that allowed them to rapidly deploy from their vehicle. They were able to prone out and regain their feet rapidly.
 

SWAT RESPONSE

The rapid and absolute aggressive tactics of the SWAT officers was paramount in the successful neutralization of the suspect Martasaurano. By resorting to their training and team concept of staying together and communicating, they were a united force. By being able to respond with assault rifles to match the suspect, and by laying down cover fire that was well aimed and very effective in keeping the suspect on the defensive, they were able to deploy at three specific shooting positions. When one of the officers' weapons malfunctioned, this was communicated by voice and that officer was supported by accurate fire until the officer was able to return fire again. The officers preparation and training allowed them to immediately recognize the tactical solution - to prone out and attack the legs of the suspect under the vehicle. The wounds that led to the death of the suspect were all in the legs with the exception of a very serious arm wound.

The single most important component of the SWAT response to this shooting was the ability of the responding SWAT officers to go directly to the scene with all of the necessary weaponry and body armor. The fact that the LAPD SWAT officers carry all of their equipment with them while on duty, as well as taking it home on regular days off, allowed for response without a time consuming delay for issuance of weapons and equipment. The LAPD SWAT officers were also able to select appropriate weapons because they have the choice in their car of MP5s, M26s, Shotguns, H&K .223 caliber assault rifles and AR 15s. They learned long ago that certain weapons are needed for specific tactical functions. MP5s are a fine weapon, but are not the best choice for the situation confronting LAPD SWAT on this day. It is essential that SWAT officers have weapons available with them, and that they have the choice of weapons and ammunition to match the tactical problem.
 

FUTURE WEAPONS CONSIDERATIONS

The patrol officers should have had small caliber rifle capability. Had they been issued this essential piece of equipment, head shots were a possible solution for them. Without a Ruger 9MM or 40 S&W rifle, or an AR 15 or M16, head shots that could have ended the threat were out of the question. The political environment in the City of Los Angeles borders on a third world mentality and it may never be possible to provide this easy to use and accurate weapon.

Safariland's distributor in San Diego, Don Hacklander, regularly demonstrates the safety and ease of the urban rifle by taking a police academy's poorest shooting cadet and in 15 minutes having that cadet shooting 50 yard head shots. This simplicity of training, citizen safety through accuracy, and low cost can only be achieved through an urban rifle such as the Ruger 9MM or 40 S&W. Agencies large and small should consider deployment of this weapon, not as a replacement for the shotgun, because it can't, but as an enhancement of officer capability and accuracy which it can.
 

FUTURE ARMOR CONSIDERATIONS

Police body armor must be at pace with the types and kinds of threats that can face the field police officer. Safariland has developed a tactical vest for patrol use that can effectively stop assault rifle impacts. This vest is a Tactical Level 3A with the ability to insert Class 3 and Class 4 plates. Its relatively low cost and its ability to blend with the patrol officer's duty belt equipment set up makes it a fine tactical option.
 

LIABILITY ISSUES

There are few who would criticize LAPD on their performance during this violent confrontation with murderous felons. The suspects, Phillips and Martasaurano were experienced, well trained, committed terrorists. The violent assault they perpetrated upon innocent citizens including children was atrocious. Some allege that the police did not provide medical attention in a timely manner and that caused the death of the suspect, Martasaurano. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When the final suspect surrendered, wounded citizens were scattered throughout the area. Wounded police officers were lying in parking lots and the street. Both the citizens and the police were a priority for two important reasons. First, they come before suspects when there is a "waiting list" for medical attention. Second, the police and EMT personnel did not know if Martasaurano was in possession of explosives or was "booby-trapped." Based upon the suspect's actions and appearance, these concerns were very real. Only when a suspect is rendered safe and can be searched safely can medical aid be risked.

Police training and the foremost experts recommend extreme caution, and response to citizens and officers first, under the circumstances that confronted the LAPD SWAT team. The National Tactical Officers Association's Tactical Emergency Medical Section has trained hundreds of officers to respond just as the LAPD SWAT team did. Medical doctors familiar with this kind of tactical medical emergency would and have endorsed the actions of the LAPD SWAT team.

Finally, as a former member of the LAPD SWAT team, I want to extend my congratulations to the brave patrol officers as well as to SWAT for a job well done.

Text by Ron McCarthy, Armor Specialist/Tactics Instructor
 

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