Twenty-five years ago, eight FBI agents pursuing two armed robbery suspects attempted a felony stop that resulted in a hail of gunfire, four deaths, and a reexamination of law enforcement weaponry, duty ammunition, body armor, and vehicle-stop tactics.
The gear and training employed by officers is much different today, partly as a result of the FBI Miami shootout. There have been other game-changing gunfights in the last quarter century. The following article examines each of them and how they changed your tactics, procedures, and policies.
We've ranked each one in order of importance (from fifth to first) and settled on an even five just to simplify matters. There are others, and there's no doubt a few readers will mention the Newhall incident in which four California Highway Patrol officers lost their lives in a fierce gun battle on April 6, 1970. But we wanted to stay within the past 25 years. (We encourage you to send us feedback about our choices.)
We spoke to police trainers, firearms experts, and tactical instructors to help us spell out the lasting impacts of these events on patrol officers. As noted by Massad Ayoob, director of the Massad Ayoob Group, in addition to horrific circumstances, these incidents contain plenty of bravery by law enforcement officers.
"One thing you take from all of these is the tremendous courage of cops fighting against the odds, for their brothers and for the public they serve," Ayoob says. "It's inspiring."
Carl Drega Rampage
Aug. 19, 1997: Bloomfield, Vt.
Recluse Carl Drega took his one-man war with society across state lines on Aug. 19, 1997, launching a rampage that started with the murder of two New Hampshire troopers attempting to ticket him in the parking lot of a LaPerle's IGA market in Colebrook.
Drega, who armed himself with an AR-15 and ballistic vest, stole the trooper's cruiser and drove to Columbia, where he killed a judge and newspaper editor. He then crossed into Vermont, running a game warden off the road and firing on responding officers who located the stolen cruiser.
Two New Hampshire troopers and a U.S. Border Patrol agent with an M14 .308 rifle providing mutual aid eventually stopped Drega by shooting and killing him. The gunman had also been struck in the vest with a rifled shotgun slug.
Following the incident, rural agencies began equipping their officers with patrol rifles, says Ayoob, who is also a reserve officer in New Hampshire.
"Drega sold more police patrol rifles than the entire firearms industry sales force," says Ayoob. "It reminded the public that smalltown, rural departments were just as likely to face this sort of thing as the municipal departments."
FBI Miami Shootout
April 11, 1986: Pinecrest, Fla.
A close-quarters gun battle involving eight FBI agents and two heavily armed suspects during a felony stop in southern Miami, this incident led FBI Firearms Training Unit Director John Hall to conclude that the carnage was primarily "an ammo failure."
The FBI's after-action report solidified Hall's belief, because it showed that Michael Platt and William Matix—an Army Ranger and Army MP of the 101st Airborne, respectively—sustained fatal wounds yet continued to bring the fight to the agents. The agents had fired .38 Special and 9mm rounds from revolvers and semi-auto pistols, which lacked adequate stopping power, FBI officials said afterward. Only Special Agent Edmundo Mireles deployed a long gun—his Remington 870 pump-action shotgun.
One bullet, in particular, was singled out as the "shot that failed." Fired by Special Agent Jerry Dove, this 9mm bullet struck Platt's right forearm, entered his right ribcage, and stopped an inch from his heart. Platt survived to fight for four more minutes, eventually killing agents Dove and Benjamin Grogan.
Matix had also apparently been taken out of the fight early with a .38 Special +P round fired by Special Agent Gordon McNeill from his S&W Model 19 that struck Matix in the face and contused his brain. According to Dr. French Anderson's "Forensic Analysis of the April 11, 1986, FBI Firefight," the wound "must have been devastating." After he lay unconscious for more than a minute, Matix became alert, left his car, and joined Platt in agent Grogan's and agent Dove's vehicle.
Following the tragedy, the FBI phased out revolvers and .38 Special ammunition. Agents were also eventually issued H&K MP5 submachine guns for high-risk encounters.
"The FBI went looking for a pistol round with deeper penetration," says Dave Spaulding, a retired Ohio police lieutenant and pistol instructor. "It's not important that you hit something, it's important that you hit something important."
The FBI's adoption of 10mm Auto to attain greater stopping power popularized the then-obscure round. The FBI later switched to a subsonic load (the "10mm FBI") to better tame the full-powered 10mm that delivered about 38,000 pounds psi, says Ayoob, who's written extensively about the incident.
Later, the FBI switched to the .40-caliber S&W that is now the most prevalent duty ammo in law enforcement. The .40-caliber provides similar ballistics to a 10mm in a shorter casing.[PAGEBREAK]
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.
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."[PAGEBREAK]
Nov. 26, 2008: Mumbai, India
Why would we make an incident that didn't even occur in the United States our most influential gunfight in the last 25 years? The reasons are many, but here's a few. One, we face the same enemy as the Indians, and that enemy loves to copy successful operations. Two, America's cities and public gathering areas are extremely vulnerable to this kind of attack. Three, in India the military responded, but Posse Comitatus will not allow that here. You will have to respond. That's why the 10 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks by Islamist terrorists on a hotel, hospital, rail terminus, and other populated locations still keeps American law enforcement tactics instructors awake at night.
The attacks, which occurred over four days, resulted in the killing of 164 people and the wounding of at least 308. The lone attacker captured alive disclosed that the attackers were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant organization.
The attacks have triggered a rethinking of terrorist response strategies by police, and the emphasis on lone-officer engagement during deadly assaults. As with the attacks on Columbine and Virginia Tech, Mumbai also taught officers they must engage active killers to lessen the bloodshed, according to Alwes.
In recent years, lone officers and partners have engaged shooters at a nursing home in Carthage, N.C., in March 2009, and at a military deployment center at Ford Hood, Texas, in November of that year.
"An active shooter situation is not a tactical team problem, it's a tactical officer problem," says Alwes. "A tactical officer is anyone on duty."
The NTOA and other trainers have begun teaching a tactical philosophy known as Multiple-Assault Counter Terrorism Action Capability (MACTAC) that allows more flexible officer deployment when multiple locations are hit. Regardless of the deployment strategy, officers who arrive first at the scene must now take matters into their own hands.
"If we know the killers are active, our first priority above all else is to get in there and stop them," says Alwes. "We can't wait for SWAT. The officers at the scene have to stop it."
Shots Fired: Bloomfield, Vermont 08/19/1997
FBI Honors Agents Involved In Bloody Miami Shootout
LAPD Faces Urban Warfare In North Hollywood Bank Shoot-Out
Mumbai: You Would Have Shot Back
Editor's Note: You've read POLICE Magazine's top-five gunfights that changed law enforcement. Now, please give us your choices by adding a comment below.