Within certain circles there lies an idea, a perception if you will that first responders are being militarized. A controversial subject because opinions differ greatly depending who you talk to and what side of the fence they stand. Whilst it appears true that rural police departments should have no need for large armoured Bearcat type vehicles, usually bought as military surplus there is however a very real need for first responders to be able to maintain effective tools to do their job.
Yet where does this need come from?
The days of the criminal element running around with nothing more than a .32 'Saturday night special' are far behind us. 'Assault' rifles, including those converted to select fire are more prevalent within the criminal underworld today, as is the mentality to use them against law enforcement.
The 'North Hollywood Shootout' is the event that is often wrongly labelled as the beginning of the 'militarization' of varying United States police departments. The truth behind that escalation can be traced back many decades before the 1997 event though; all the way back to the 1933 Union Station Shootout in Kansas which resulted in not only the deaths of four law enforcement officers and one of the criminal gang but also highlighted the need to sufficiently arm those who would attempt to apprehend the criminal element bent on destruction.
Between the 1933 event and what, for us, can be seen as the pinnacle in 1997 many more high profile shootings illustrated the disparity between responding officers and the criminal element. The SLA siege, The 1986 Miami FBI shootout, Norco.
Some may argue that the Branch Davidian siege at Waco should be included to this list too but a differing set of circumstances governs that particular event.
Those events listed above are a very minute, albeit very violent and very public pinnacle of the numerous shootings where responding officers found themselves outgunned in the commission of their duty.
So here we all sit, twenty years to the day since the most public, most brazen bank robbery ended being broadcast live to the world. What have we, as consumers of those images, learned?
Phillips and Matasareanu's final foray into the world of fast 'easy' money was doomed from the start, maybe from the moment they left the house on Ludlow street that morning.
Their plan whilst fundamentally sound had zero contingencies built in, it took very few external pressures to derail their original planning.
Phillips decision to indulge in gun play with responding officers has overtones of the heyday of bank robberies of well known characters such as Dillinger, Nelson and Floyd; yet that is where such comparisons must end, for within the time Phillips was active he made two fundamental mistakes, each compounding the other both of which ended up being a major part of their downfall. The first was that they did not leave the area immediately. Police officers present that day have stated numerous times that 'If they had wanted to they could have quite easily driven out of that lot and gotten away'; this not only speaks to the surprise that they did not make this move but is also a nod to the often under-reported side of the story that the containment hastily thrown up around the Bank of America was far from complete.
Their failure to leave was not without reason though, Matasareanu's gunshot wound above the right eye had certainly panicked him (remember at this point that Phillips was also carrying at least two gunshot wounds of his own courtesy of Officer. Zboraban's shotgun). Matasareanu's need to recuperate in the bandit Chevrolet had all but sealed their fate. Phillips second mistake was his inability to motivate his lightly wounded accomplice into the urgent flight mode that was needed. Phillips would approach the Chevrolet on three separate occasions, subject to withering gunfire and three times the bandit vehicle remained stationary. Only seconds after the announcement that SWAT had arrived at the command post six hundred meters to the south (a broadcast almost certainly heard by Matasareanu on the scanner he had with him in the vehicle) did the Chevrolet eventually move.
Phillips gunplay in the North parking lot was not so much of a mistake, it was just a by-product of him buying Matasareanu time to recover.
Whether or not he became too involved in the shooting or not is a moot point ; it appears he felt that he needed Matasareanu to be the driver yet all it would have taken was for Phillips to assume the driver's position and attempt to drive (as uncomfortable or clunky as that may have proven) and this event would have played out very differently.
Some have mentioned that he became too involved in the shooting side of things but this does not appear to be logical, Phillips critical thinking skills at every point during the 44 minute long event seem to be clear and defined. In summary we believe that he relied too much on his companion and remained too rigid within 'the plan' when events were going sideways around them and required him to adapt.
Whilst we can examine every aspect of Phillips and Matasareanu's actions, what they got 'right' and what they got oh so wrong the need to look the other side of the fence is pressing.
Many officers expressed the absolute horror of hearing automatic gunfire and looking at their sidearm and realizing they were going to have to face a cannon armed only with a peashooter. If not for the individual and extremely brave actions of a small cadre of these officers the result of 2/28 may have been very different indeed.
After the shooting was over the need to protect Officers and public from this sort of threat, as rare as it was, was agreed upon. Petitions to 'up-arm' patrol officers that had lain untouched on various high ranked city official's desks for months (untouched due to them being the political hot potato that they were at the time) were approved within days. Shortly afterwards the UPR (Urban Police Rifle) program would also be endorsed with minimal protest and the so -called 'militarization' process took yet another significant step along its path.
The actions of two, short lived but extremely violent whilst in operation, dictated political ideals whose effects can be seen until this very day; amongst them police cars being lined with bullet resistant panels, UPR, and larger calibre sidearms.
I have read the arguments for and against this upscaling, I can see both side's argument yet on a personal note if I ever find myself in the unforgiving position that Mike Horen did on 2/28, behind a shredded cop car whilst some guy claps off ten rounds a second at me for no good reason I would hope and pray that a uniform is going to pop up and slam a round into the shooter from 200 yards to put an end to the madness. I would dare say there isn't a man woman or child here that would suffer what Horen et al did in the name of not wanting to see a cop carrying an rifle because 'police should not look like soldiers'. If it takes a 'soldier' to stop a threat to public safety then so be it, give the guy an AR15, the training to use it, and the trust to use it in a competent fashion where necessity dictates.
So many things changed that day, not least a loss, or if not loss at least a lessening, of innocence.
I once did the math for the odds of a LA resident being liable to get caught up in one of these events, it turns out you are 280 times more likely to choke to death on a peanut. For those civilians that ended up caught in the middle of the mayhem that day, you have to admire their resilience, their determination to survive what could have easily been a slaughterhouse. I know at least one of the people caught inside the bank that day visits this page, and having seen how the event affected others I hold out my hand and wish you all the best, if this thing affects you negatively in any way at any time then please come talk to us if you think it may help.
Yet this is my main reason for writing this piece, to look at what was lost.
Look at pictures of Archwood & Agnes at the time of the event and then a year or two later. Gone are the privet hedges and low cinderblock walls, replaced by high wooden and metal fences. If the decisions to make these changes were not conscious, they sure were subliminal and rooted in the madness of 2/28.
The physical changes to the area were somewhat expected, a natural response to the event. The emotional impact though is another story.
Walking around the area with an officer who was part of the inner cordon that day and I noticed his wife keeping a very close eye on him, he himself was extremely animated, the cords of muscle in his forearms knotted like wood as he repeated clenched and unclenched his fists as he recalled his story. Even though he had been an officer in the very same area for years after the shootout the act of retelling his day had stirred up the old adrenaline. You could feel the intensity coming off this guy in waves, it was both exhilarating and saddening in the same taste.
The much touted story of three officers committing suicide after the event is to some degree a misnomer. Yes three officers did commit suicide, and yes those three officers were involved in one way or another with the NHWD shooting. Yet was the event the whole and complete reason they chose the path they did? Having looked at each officers case it would appear not, each one had major issues they were dealing with in their life right before they checked out. So if not the sole factor in these officers suicides could the shooting have been contributory? Absolutely!
Read any cop's memoir and if they are honest enough they will take you behind the badge to show you that despite the uniform and gun they are as human and emotionally vulnerable as the rest of us; and yet they are often subjected to the very worst that society has to offer.
For anybody that may scoff at that thought I urge you to go research the substance abuse rates, and especially the divorce rates for law enforcement. They are astronomically high!
The good news is that in the years following NHWD that Behavioural Science Services has taken great leaps and bounds forwards to assist responders dealing with high stress traumas, it is now for the officers to brush aside the social stigma amongst their colleagues and reach out if they need help.
So we have civilians traumatised, cops traumatised, bank employees....you get my drift here right?
Yet behind it all, and an angle often overlooked is the families of the gunmen. Their suffering was to be the untold story of this event.
Some may say 'Oh but their spouses had to know what was going on!', and form opinion without fact. I cannot say what Janette Federico and Christina Matasareanu's knew of their husband's endeavours but it is not those people I refer to.
Several years ago I stumbled across a questionnaire filled out by one of Matasareanu's sons in which he spoke of the loss of his father and the sadness he felt was clearly evident to those who read the piece. He was six years old when his father died in the middle of the street, and twelve years later he still felt that pain.
I know for a fact that both spouses have successfully kept themselves and their children away from media and researchers, to attempt to give their children as normal a life as possible.
I understand their reasons and respect their efforts in this endeavour.
So everybody lost.
Larry and Emil, most obviously, their lives.
Their spouses lost their husbands, the kids their fathers.
The community and those who protect it lost the sense of wellbeing, of safety, for a while at least.
There were no winners.
The story is often presented as a morality tale, of good winning over evil and whilst true to a degree it wasn't as cut and dried as often presented. Show me a cop is 100% purity and I'll show you a bad guy who is 100% evil. We all have the balance of those traits, it's just how far the scale tips in either direction which defines us. So whilst the morality tale angle has some element of truth I think this story is more of a story of attrition. Ofc. Stuart Guy summed it up best when he said, and I paraphrase here 'We were a bunch of ants nibbling at a spider, and eventually we bought it down'.
So as we sit here on the 20th anniversary I would ask you to remember one thing. I read a quote the other day and it said 'The world is full of good people, if you cannot find one then go out and be one'. That spoke to me in relation to this event, because look what damage a selfish action can cause.
We wish you all well, thank you so much for sticking with us on this journey we have undertaken. Today is not a day for celebration, maybe a small one that we are all here to read my ramblings, but I do not think celebrating the deaths of two and the mental scarring of dozens of others is where we should be at. Do you?