Imagine yourself working uniformed patrol at 9:15 a.m. on a warm sunny day and you suddenly find yourself in Beirut, Bosnia, or back in the Mekong Delta. You go from thinking about where you'll stop for the next cup of coffee, to having your black-and-white shot up with full automatic AK-47 rounds.
Within the new few minutes, officers and civilians all about you are shot down in the street by bank robbers who look like Ninja Turtles dressed to kill. And unlike the usual "gun battle" that lasts a few seconds, this time the shooting just keeps going, and going, and going...
Such was the nightmare faced- and heroically overcome- by the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department and the people of North Hollywood, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 28, 1997.
Officer Loren Farell, a nine-year veteran, and his partner officer Martin Perello, who has served for 18 months, made the initial observation of the bank robbery in progress while on patrol. Farell was writing in his administrative log while Perello drove and scanned the area closely as they cruised by the Bank of America. Perello casually looked over at the bank's doorway as they passed. "It's the busiest bank in the division."
"You always look at the door. It's just a routine thing to do," said Farell.
What happened next was anything but routine.
"My partner yelled '211,' our code for robbery," recalled Farell.
"Martin said there's two guys dressed like Ninja Turtles pushing a hostage into the bank. I looked up from my log and saw the rifles. I picked up my radio and called for assistance."
The officers deployed and took a tactical position of cover, about 15 feet apart from each other. When fully automatic weapons fire started coming from the bank, it pinned Farell and Perello down in their positions for a long time.
Officers responding to the assistance call were at great peril, and several were cut down by gunfire as the suspects sprayed their weapons at everything that moved.
"My partner's been shot!"
"Officer needs help!"
"We need an ambulance!"
The police radio screamed the emergency in many voices. Moments later, another officer made virtually the same report. Then another. And another.
What do you do? As you return fire from your 9mm semiautomatic and try to maintain a position of cover- as if there is much cover from armor piercing AK-47 rounds spilling from 100- round magazines- the reality sets in: You brought a cap- gun to World War III.
Detective Gordon Hagge was one of the first officers on the scene of the shootout at the Bank of America that morning. He told the Los Angeles Time, "I'm in the wrong place with the wrong gun."
The reality of being outgunned became much worse when officers got a peek at their adversaries. Not just heavily armed bandits, but cool and calm Terminator- types who were dressed in full- body armor from their necks to their feel; commando- style robbers who were taking multiple hits from police small- arms fire and not even appearing to notice.
Sgt. Larry "Dean" Haynes, a16-year veteran assigned to the North Hollywood Division, was one of the first responders who engaged the suspects and watched as police bullets literally bounced off the body armor. As he was firing at the suspects, Haynes was wounded twice by AK-47 fire. When he say the first SWAT officer arriving near Haynes' position, "I felt like John Wayne had come," he told the Los Angeles Times."
"As soon as I saw that guy, I knew everything would be OK."
Lt. Nick Zingo was in charge at North Hollywood Division that morning. "When I first heard the automatic gunfire, and the officer- down calls were coming out," said Zingo, "I was sure that I had lost one or more of my people. Any watch commander knows that your worst fear is that one of your officers will be killed."
"And I was sure that it was happening to me."
Upon hearing that the location was the Bank of America, Zingo knew what he had. "We had been briefed about these robbers, seen videotapes of their prior bank takeover robberies. I knew they had killed a guard and that they first indiscriminately and that it was just a matter of time before somebody would confront these robbers. I knew that they had full body armor, and that we would have our hands full with these guys."
"I know what AK- 47s can do."
What the LAPD officers were up against were two armed robbers who had been tied to several other bank robberies and armored car robberies, including the murder of a guard.
Ultimately, both robbers were killed, one when confronted by three responding SWAT officers who heroically drove perilously close and engaged the suspect with SWAT's own fully automatic weapons.
At the time of this report (just a few days after the shoot-out), there was speculation that the other suspect may have taken his own life with a self-inflicted shot to the head with one of his several handguns after his AK-47 experienced a "stove-pipe" jam and officers were closing in.
But news reports shortly after that quoted the coroner's office spokesman as saying it would take several months before the cause of death could be confirmed.
Miraculously, of the 11 officers and six civilian bystanders who were injured, some by armor- piercing AK- 47 rounds, none were killed. Somebody was looking out for the "good guys" that day.
This gun battle will be one of the classics that is talked about and viewed in survival tactics fare in the face of what can only be described as unconventional urban warfare?
We usually think of, and train for, SWAT incidents with well- armed suspects as "barricaded suspects" in a bank or a house of other fixed locations. Even extreme cases featuring heavy automatic gunfire like the Symbionese Liberation Army shoot- out in Los Angeles back in 1974, occurred at a fixed location.
In the North Hollywood bank shoot- out, the initial patrol officers and the SWAT officers who arrived on the scene from the Police Academy in the middle of their daily workout- some of them still wearing their gym shorts- were faced with an entirely unconventional tactical situation: a running gun battle over several blocks with suspects who simply would not go down no matter how many times they were hit.
"It's not supposed to happen like this," said Lt. Zingo.
"Bank robbers are supposed to go in, get the money, and leave. If they get trapped inside, they're supposed to take hostages and make SWAT come and talk them out. They're not supposed to come outside and take on patrol officers."
And yet, these two did. All any patrol officer can reasonably do if caught in this situation, said Zingo, is "have enough mental preparation to know that you've got to hold your cover position and try not to get shot. As a supervisor, you cannot send a bunch of patrol officers with small arms into battle with people using AK- 47s. You have to react instinctively and innovate and survive."
"Willpower beats firepower."
During this incident, a squad of officers went to a local gun shop to borrow semiautomatic rifles, and it was Zingo who authorized this move.
"It was a survival decision in the heat of battle," he said. "We had to do something to try to end this thing without innocent people and civilians getting killed."
Four days after the shoot- out, the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners took action to create a field test of .45- caliber semiautomatic pistols for patrol officers, and to deploy AR- 15s in each field supervisor's squad car as soon as training and equipment acquisition can occur.
No written article can do justice to the scene that played out in North Hollywood that morning. The videotapes made by a half- dozen media helicopters overhead captured much of the action, and they are "must see" material.
From the heroic rescue of a downed officer, made under heavy gunfire, to the numerous attempted to effectively engage the suspects, the footage is unforgettable documentation of the heroism of police officers.
Farell, the officer who, with his partner, came upon the robbery in progress, reflected on the heroism of that day. "They all did it; rookies and veterans, patrol and detectives."
"It's training, pure and simple. We adapted very quickly to what we needed to do. Every single officer acted the way he needed to without being told. A media guy asked me if I had the chance, would I have gone the other way. I gave him a one word answer."
Greg Meyer is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department with over 20 years of law enforcement experience. He is also a nationally known police tactics consultant, instructor and expert legal witness having written, lectured and testified extensively on use of force, ethics, nonlethal weapons and training issues.