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Features

5 Gunfights That Changed Law Enforcement

In the past 25 years, American law enforcement tactics, procedures, and policies have evolved because of these horrific incidents.

May 04, 2011  |  by


A SWAT unit exits Columbine High School after sweeping the campus for suspects and victims. Photo: Newscom.

Columbine High School Massacre

April 20, 1999: Littleton, Colo.

The attack on Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold with bombs and a small arsenal of shotguns and carbines was more of a failed bombing than a shooting incident, according to Dave Cullen, who wrote the bestseller "Columbine."

The shooting was bad enough. The Columbine incident became one of the most studied active-shooter massacres in law enforcement and led to the popularization of IARD (Immediate Action Rapid Deployment) among tactical teams. During the Columbine massacre, Jefferson County (Colo.) Sheriff's Office tactical officers followed a traditional strategy of surrounding the building, setting up a perimeter, and containing the damage. The results were catastrophic.

The IARD tactic (which was actually used by the LAPD prior to Columbine) calls for a four-person team to advance into the site of a shooting, optimally using a diamond-shaped wedge, to stop the shooter as quickly as possible and save lives. Cullen has said the tactic, used at Virgina Tech, "probably saved dozens of lives."

The IARD tactic has evolved since Columbine because the four-officer response has existed as a theoretical approach and has been rarely used in the field.

"It was all based around the four-officer cell," says Don Alwes, an active-shooter instructor with the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA). "It could be a diamond, a T, or a Y. But none of those formations look like they're supposed to when you start using them in the real world."

Regardless of formation, Alwes reiterates the idea that first-responding officers can't wait for SWAT to engage an active killer.


This LAPD cruiser now resides in the agency's museum. It was hit more than 50 times in the North Hollywood shootout. Photo: Paul Clinton.

North Hollywood Bank Robbery

Feb. 28, 1997: Los Angeles, Calif.

The Los Angeles officers who found themselves under a barrage of heavy machine-gun fire from the North Hollywood bank robbers quickly realized that their 9mm pistols and shotguns were ineffective against the armored gunmen.

Officers responding to the Bank of America branch along Laurel Canyon Boulevard on Feb. 28, 1997, engaged Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Matasareanu from the cover of a locksmith shop across a four-lane thoroughfare. Officers typically trained at 25 yards with 9mm handguns fired from 70 yards, attempting to answer the military-style rifles—a full-auto Romanian AIM AK-47 variant, Norinco Type 56 S-1, semi-auto HK91, and modified Bushmaster XM15 E2S—used by the suspects, who had loaded 3,300 rounds of ammo in box and drum magazines in the trunk of their white Chevy Celebrity.

Nine officers were wounded, and one LAPD Crown Vic squad car was hit at least 56 times during a gun battle that lasted 44 minutes. During the blistering gunfight, 650 rounds were fired at the suspects, who fired 1,101 rounds at officers.

With his troops outgunned, Lt. Nick Zingo authorized officers to head to nearby BB & Sales Guns to acquire rifles to match the ones fired by the suspects.

Following the shootout, which was broadcast locally on live television, law enforcement agencies began providing AR-type rifles to patrol officers. In some cases, the rifles were installed in cruisers. In the case of the Florida Highway Patrol, rifle training was provided and officers bought their own rifles, says Ayoob.

The LAPD also added ballistic Kevlar plating inside the doors of its cruisers.

"Two important lessons come to mind from the North Hollywood shootout," says retired LAPD Capt. Greg Meyer, a member of the POLICE advisory board. "First, it is essential these days to equip patrol officers with rifles. Incident after incident around the country proves this. The North Hollywood officers did not have that resource until SWAT arrived on the scene in the final minutes of the shootout. Second, several of the nine heroes wounded were detectives, male and female. Don't overlook tactical training for your detectives."

Perceptive agencies also noticed a rescue of a downed colleague by Officer Anthony Cabunoc and his partner with a police cruiser. "A lot more departments seem to model the excellent extrication work that was done there in the field, scooping in and using vehicles as cover to pick up the wounded officers and evacuate them from the field of fire," says Ayoob. "That was widely emulated."


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