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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  | 

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

Comments (17)

Displaying 1 - 17 of 17

Mike @ 5/5/2011 12:58 PM

WHile I don't disagree with any of thee events being listed in the top 5, one gunfight that I feel also carries great importance is the Trolley Square shooting in Feb 2007, in Salt Lake City, Ut. Off duty Ogden Officer Ken Hammond prevented countless deaths by immediately taking the fight to the shooter. Although the situation was ultimately handled by SWAT, the off-duty lessons learned are extremely valuable.

Tim Dowling @ 5/5/2011 8:46 PM

you forgot the Norco Bank Robbery/Pursuit in 1980

Tim @ 5/5/2011 8:51 PM

he CHP Newhall Shootout in 1970. The Newhall massacre resulted in a number of changes at the CHP, including procedural changes in arresting high risk suspects and standardization of firearms used across the department.

DJ @ 5/6/2011 10:00 AM

Maybe I'm geeting old but, I seem to remember three other, and to me more significant gunfights that changed law enforcement. The first being the Panther shootout in LA. This is what brought about the formal structuring of SWAT. The second being the CHP shooting in Newhall and how it changed training on the range. The third would be the SLA shootout and the related response by on and off duty officers. Honorable mention goes to the Philidelphia PD satchel charge on the radical group MOVE and the Norco rolling gun battle where shots were fired from the PD helicopter. Something I haven't heard being done since. But we all have our own memories!

Bill @ 5/10/2011 1:12 AM

I think DJ has it right, but you might also want to add the Williamburg Seige of January 19, 1973, when Black Muslim Terrorists took over John & Al's Sporting Goods Store in the 81st Pct. of NYC. They took hostages, killed an ESU officer and wounded a number of other NYPD cops. It was one of the first big domestic terrorist incidents and a lot of lessons were learned.

Adam Kasanof @ 5/24/2011 8:34 PM

I'd add this gunfight, which happened just under 25 years ago. On June 28, 1986, NYPD Police Officer Scott Gadell was shot and killed. He was 22, and had been an NYPD officer for about 3 years. He was shot while trying to reload a .38 revolver from "dump boxes," which tip down and pour loose ammo into your hand. Speedloaders hadn't been authorized by the NYPD yet. The suspect who killed him was armed with a 9mm autopistol, and didn't need to reload. As a result of Gadell's death, the NYPD promptly authorized the use of speedloaders, and this incident certainly contributed to the NYPD's eventual shift to autopistols as its main duty weapons. As a retired NYPD lieutenant, I'd like to say that this officer, and this incident, should be remembered.

John @ 7/6/2011 10:06 AM

I would have hoped that the WACO raid would have made this list, talk about an event that changed the way law enforcement deals with barricaded suspect(s). Easily a top 5 event in law enforcement history.

Tom Ret @ 11/28/2012 8:30 AM

I recall one incident that was used as a training aid when combating snipers who are firing from elevated positions which occurred around 1973. A Mark Essex, black panther, ended up shooting 19 people including 10 police officers in or around New Orleans.
He ended up shooting people inside a Howard Johnson hotel before taking a perch on the top where he could snipe down on people and officers below. Eventually a USMC helicopter was brought in and fire
poured down on Essex as officers on adjacent buildings fired on him.
He was pulverized by gun fire and had about 200 bullet holes in him. Prior to being killed, he did a lot of damage with a 44 mag carbine.

S.S @ 11/29/2012 6:39 AM

I'm an ex-SWAT officer, and I think all of these incidents lead most police departments ,and law enforcement agencies to rethink what officers carry while on duty. To me what stood out in my mind was the North Hollywood Bank shootout. These felons were armed to the teeth and had way more firepower than law enforcement did. We weren't outmanned but we were outgunned. I think this incident changed it more than any other incident. While all these incidents are tragic, we are able to learn a great deal from the officers that are no longer with us.

Jim Kelly @ 12/10/2012 8:16 AM

fortunately, I have never been any of these. But I wonder what the "formal lessons learned report" tells us about preparing for and preventing a Waco disaster.

Ken Larson @ 1/12/2014 12:43 PM

One thing learned for sure was - never underestimate your opponent. The will to keep up the fight, as in platt & agent mireles can never be taken for granted! Platt sustained a fatal wound early on in the gun fight and was still able to shoot on the move and out flank agents dove & grogan. killing them both and wounding everyone but agent risner. Lesson learned? just because you shoot someone does"nt mean that they fall down and die!

C Warn @ 4/29/2014 7:52 AM

The Drega case is a much more involved tragedy (as are most) but included "border jumping" between NH and VT as well as some behaviors from Drega before the incident. The lessons learned by the tragic loss of Troopers Phillips and Lord were many. Other shootings that have changed law enforcement (at least in training) include 4 specific incidents when 4 officers have been slain by one or two gunmen. Although one occurred in 1970 and another in Canada, they all should be remembered as "lessons learned". The incidences I refer to are Newhall, Ca 1970; Mayerthorpe, Alberta 2005, Oakland, CA in 2009 and Lakewood, Wash in 2009. The 16 officers who paid the ultimate sacrifice taught many police officers lessons regarding tactics, while showing administrations and citizens what can happen when you do not equip and/or train your officers appropriately. Every incident, even without a fatality can teach valuable lessons. Wear your vest!

Travis @ 1/31/2015 10:36 AM

I am sure this has been mentioned, but the .40 S&W round does NOT provide similar ballistics to those of a 10mm loaded to anything approaching original specs, but only to the FBI light loading which was mentioned in the article upon which many current factory mass produced loadings are unfortunately based.

Steve Ferdin @ 6/5/2015 1:16 PM

I my opinion the unfortunate and important element connected to these shootouts is that there were probably officers that had been telling their chiefs of police or management about these deficiencies in equipment and training prior to or after previous shootouts but the chiefs or management did not act on the information because of incompetency or acquiesced to political pressure.

JttK @ 11/6/2015 9:32 AM

What goes around comes around. FBI today announced dropping the .40 in favor of the 9mm +p+ rounds.

Curtis @ 12/8/2015 5:05 AM

While it was a horrible day indeed the drega shooting should have never happened...I was recently talked to a local from the area that stated Drega was poked and poked and poke and after his wife died of cancer he snapped... A sad day indeed for everyone..

Joe Stalvey @ 4/17/2016 11:37 PM

In the 35 years I was in military and civilian law enforcement, one of the things that concerned me was that as weapons progressed, a trend toward "shooting", as opposed to marksmanship started to emerge. Hi capacity handguns, and "spray and pray" mentality seemed to take over for a while. Training to hit dedicated targets on the suspect, and hit accurately, yet quickly must be achieved. With the suspects hi powered, hi capacity weapons, and body armor, the days of "shoot to kill", may have returned.

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