A 2012 AR-15 patrol rifle now comes with a 1913 quadrail, back-up iron sights, co-witnessed optic, vertical foregrip, QD sling swivels, and proprietary flash hider. Photo: Bob Parker
Fifteen years ago, on Feb. 28, 1997, Los Angeles police officers engaged in one of the fiercest gun battles in modern U.S. law enforcement history. The failed bank robbery and firefight that followed during the 44 minutes from 9:17 to 10:01 a.m. would forever alter the way police agencies arm, equip, and train patrol officers.
The setting for what became known as the North Hollywood Shootout was a Bank of America branch on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley community patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department.
Two seasoned bank and armored car robbers—Larry Eugene Phillips, Jr. and Emil Matasareanu—planned to spend a few minutes in the bank to steal about $300,000. The plan went sideways when two LAPD patrol officers spotted them entering the bank. Phillips and Matasareanu were not your typical bank customers on this sunny Friday morning. They were dressed in black coveralls and ski masks. They were bulked up by 40 pounds of body armor and carried select-fire Kalashnikov rifles, handguns, an HK-91, and fully auto AR-15.
Rather than hold the bank employees and customers hostage or harm them, Phillips and Matasareanu grabbed the duffle bag of stolen money and exited the bank in an attempt to escape. That's when the firefight commenced. Almost 2,000 rounds later, the battle ended. Twelve cops and eight civilians had been injured. The two bank robbers were dead.
At that time, patrol cops' basic armament consisted of semi-automatic pistols and 12-gauge shotguns. While this wasn't the first time patrol officers had been outgunned by professional criminals, patrol officers had never before been engaged in such a protracted, high-intensity firefight.
The battle played out on live television. Ground-level and aerial views from the TV cameras made it clear that America's street cops were facing a much more dangerous criminal element with body armor and military-level arms. The bad guys were seemingly immune to the anemic effects of pistols and shotguns, while laying down a withering fusillade of fire against LAPD officers and detectives.
The shootout gave law enforcement a compelling reason to better arm patrol officers with semi-automatic rifles.
A month later, the chief of the Omaha (Neb.) Police Department asked its SWAT commander to write a position paper outlining the need and justification of arming our patrol personnel with intermediate (5.56x45mm) rifles. With the backing of the chief and a strong-willed deputy chief who always remembered the streets from where he came, the department graduated its first patrol rifle class in November of 1997.
The author carried a Colt Model 6721 patrol rifle in 1997. Photo: Bob Parker.
All 20 students in that 1997 class carried Colt AR-15s with 16- or 20-inch barrels. Only iron sights were authorized for duty use. The only accessory authorized was a weapon-mounted light. The shooters used a standard two-point sling.
These officers were required to purchase their own rifles, 1,000 rounds of ammunition for the four-day class, and duty ammunition. The department had no money in the budget to purchase this equipment. At the same time, the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) set up a patrol rifle class using the Omaha PD's patrol rifle program as a matrix. We conducted the first NTOA patrol rifle class at the NTOA Tactical Operations Conference in Dayton, Ohio, in 1998.
This new patrol weapon leveled the playing field. It enable greater accuracy, and gave officers a high-capacity magazine. As a relatively lightweight carbine or rifle, the AR-15 enables a patrol officer to engage targets at a longer distance and its rounds penetrate most body armor. With the right ammunition, the 5.56mm projectile doesn't over-penetrate as much as certain pistol rounds. And lastly, a semi-auto patrol rifle is much easier to operate than a 12-gauge police shotgun for most personnel.