For 44 minutes on February 28, 1997, the LAPD were heroes. In the aftermath, gun control was an issue that fluttered in a twilight zone of survival, and the militarization of the LAPD and other police forces began. Before we consider defunding the police in Los Angeles, it’s worth remembering how a cool February morning was suddenly filled with testosterone and the sound of gun fire as cars got instant air-conditioning via bullet holes during a botched North Hollywood bank robbery attempt that has yet to get a proper Hollywood treatment.
North Hollywood isn’t the Hollywood of the movies with the Hollywood Walk of Fame starred sidewalks and the foot and hand prints of celebrities. That’s down south in Hollywood. NoHo is home of the NoHo Arts District and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. It is 57 percent Latino and 27 percent white. Universal Studios is between Hollywood and NoHo, but NoHo is not contiguous with Hollywood. In the 1990s, I was spending most weekends in Hollywood and NoHo. NoHo was less grungy and seems safer than the cramped theaters and dodgy street parking of the Hollywood away from Sunset and Hollywood boulevards.
From the beginning, the bank robbery didn’t go as planned. The two robbers, Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. and Emil Dechebal Mătăsăreanu, were spotted by a patrol car before they even entered the bank (Bank of America at 6600 Laurel Canyon Boulevard) at 9:17 a.m. on the last Friday of February. Dressed in black overalls with black ski masks over their heads, bulked down in body armor and with visible guns, you didn’t need to be a mentalist to see these guys weren’t cashing in their pay check.
Once in the bank, the two quickly announced their presence as they fired rounds into the ceiling inside the bank. Outside the bank, the patrol officers, Loren Farrell and Martin Perello, radio’ed in a “211 in progress.” Back up units were on their way when Phillips exited the bank at 9:24 a.m. from the north doors and Mătăsăreanu, from the south. Instead of retreating into the bank and taking hostages, the bank robbers began firing at officers and civilians.
Officer James Zboravan was able to wound Phillips, but when Phillips turns his fire toward him, Zboravan used his body clad in a bullet-proof vest to shield unarmored officers. He was wounded. A Latino dentist, Jorge Montes, whose front door has been shattered by bullets, attended to Zboravan and another injured officer, Detective William Krulac, in his office.
Phillips and Mătăsăreanu continued shooting while moving towards their car at 9:31 a.m. Mătăsăreanu was now wounded. With their standard issue service pistols, the officers could not get close enough. Their guns lacked range and had poor accuracy at long distances. Outgunned, five officers went to a local gun store, B&B, for five AR-15 style rifles.
The LAPD SWAT team arrived at about 9:42 a.m. (People might have been familiar with SWAT from a 1975 TV program that has been rebooted on CBS). Twenty-five minutes have passed. By 9:53, the robbers split up and Phillips shot himself dead. At 10:01 a.m., having been shot 29 times, Mătăsăreanu surrendered and while waiting for medical assistance bled out in 56 minutes. In the end, the robbers would be the only deaths during those 44 minutes. Eleven officers and six civilians were wounded.
The glow on these 18 LAPD heroes would last long enough to get them to the White House where they would be honored by then-president Bill Clinton the next year with Medals of Valor. Not a single bystander died. Not a single officer died.
That’s not to say that Phillips and Mătăsăreanu didn’t kill anyone. The North Hollywood hit wasn’t their first robbery. In 1993, they had already robbed an armor car in Colorado. In 1995, they had robbed another, in the San Fernando Valley. Now called the “High Incident Bandits,” they killed one guard, Herman Cook,” and injured another, Felipe Cortez.
I felt no anger, no rage, no sense of injustice except when the family of Mătăsăreanu sued the city. The city and even the nation, had seen live footage. The weekend became a blur as if time stopped but for the police departments nationwide, the police department response came quickly.
The North Hollywood shootout came 14 months after the Al Pacino-Robert DeNiro movie “Heat.” Set in Los Angeles, the movie gives scenarios that range from possible to improbable. I had been, at the time, working in downtown Los Angeles, which is prominently featured in both the beginning heist and in the last ill-fated one. The latter seemed improbable. Navigating downtown Los Angeles before GPS was a nightmarish maze of one-way streets. I remember once being in sight of a destination but unable to get there in less than 30 minutes as a circled around it due to traffic and blocked streets.
Twice I recall being caught in a police action downtown while driving. Once was because a person committed suicide, jumping to certain death but falling on and killing an innocent pedestrian who had been celebrating a first paycheck with a jewelry district purchase of a watch. The other time was on the way to work when an early morning robbery in the jewelry district left the police in pursuit; streets were closed down and all cars on the side street I was on were asked to pull over as the officers looked inside for the suspects.
With the traffic, the one-way streets, the high-priced parking, and proximity to police and sheriff headquarters, a bank robbery in downtown Los Angeles seems suicidal.
The film “Heat” was, according to Ronet Bachman and Alex Alvarez’s 2016 “Violence, the Enduring Problem” watched over and over again by Mătăsăreanu and Phillips. DeNiro’s Neil McCauley says, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner” and swears he won’t go back to prison. Phillips had already left his wife and two children. In 1996, Mătăsăreanu’s wife left him taking their son. Both had been to prison for conspiracy to commit robbery after being stopped in Glendale, CA in 1993.
According to the Daily News, these 44 minutes changed law enforcement nationwide.
“It was really a seminal moment in law enforcement,” said Burbank Police Chief Scott LaChasse, who served as LAPD commander during the shootout and who now lectures around the world on how it changed police tactics, weaponry, communications and mutual aid. “After North Hollywood, this was the most significant event that involved the most change to not only the LAPD, but police departments throughout the world.”
As a result, police departments in Los Angeles County and beyond now have access to more powerful weapons, including assault rifles and shotguns with plug rounds.
It wasn’t the LA Riots in 1992 that started the militarization. The riots that caught the LAPD unprepared, without its police chief, Daryl Gates, available according to “LA Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later,” resulted in the National Guards coming out and a tank rolling into downtown Los Angeles.
At the time of the North Hollywood shootout, the police chief was Philadelphia-born Willie L. Williams who had taken over after the resignation of Gates, hubris from the riots. Williams was the first African American police commissioner for both the Philadelphia Police Department and the LAPD. He would leave and be succeeded by the Texas-born African American Bernard C. Parks, a man with a master’s degree from the University of Southern California for public administration who served from August 1997 to May 2002.
A few weeks after the shootout (18 March 1997), a road rage incident involving two officers, Frank Lyga (undercover) and Kevin Gaines, eventually unfolded into the widening LAPD Rampart division scandal that included a bank robbery (6 November 1997) and a Rampart Station beating of a gang member (26 February 1998), Ismael Jimenez.Jimenez was beaten until he vomited blood (26 February 1998).
The Kevin Gaines shooting might seem familiar to filmgoers, mimicking the scenario in the 2004 film, “Crash.” Gaines, who was African American was killed by Lyga who is white. Attorney Johnny Cochran would help the Gaines family with a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, settling for $250,000.
The Rampart Division serves Silver Lake, Echo Park, Pico-Union and Westlake. The gangs there are primarily Latino. Yet the investigations into Gaines and eventually Black Puerto Rican LAPD officer Rafael Pérez of the elite CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit would bring in federal oversight in 2000. The same year a former LAPD detective, Russell Poole would file a civil rights lawsuit against the LAPD. Poole had investigated the Gaines shooting and the Rampart corruption. The record settlements resulted from the investigations into corruption and excessive force.
Although “Training Day” was written before the Rampart scandal broke, it became timely, particularly with Denzel Washington in an Oscar-winning performance as the corrupt cop. “Training Day” takes place in Westlake, Echo Park and South Central Los Angeles while the Rampart Division covers Westlake, Echo Park, but not South Central. The shelved Johnny Depp 2018 project “City of Lies” supposedly covers the death of rapper Notorious BIG and the Rampart corruption scandal. Woody Harrelson’s “Rampart” places the fictional main character, Harrelson’s Dave Brown, in the middle of the corruption, a man caught on camera brutally beating another driver after an accident and we follow him as he continues his corrupt ways. Corrupt cops are white and black and even Latino.
The problem with the LAPD isn’t black and white as Black Lives Matter might have you think. Fast-forwarding from the LA Riots to George Floyd over looks Rampart. Harking back to the LA Riots of 1992 or the Watts Riots of 1965 doesn’t go far enough. During World War II, Los Angeles was the setting for the Zoot Suit Riots (1943) and the Sleepy Lagoon murder. Twenty-five Latinos were arrested for the murder of José Diaz. Public outcry against Zoot suiters resulted in the arrest of 600 Latinos.
You can go even further back. According to the often-cited Tuskegee Institute statistics between 1882-1968 of the 43 lynchings in California, only two were of black people. The rest were supposedly “white” although the Tuskegee Institute worked on a binary system where anyone who wasn’t black was white (to be fair the 1948 Perez v. Sharp California state case indicates that Latinos were at the time often considered white).
Ken Gonzales-Day’s “Lynching in the West” covers a slightly different time period, 1850-1935, and found that lynching in California targeted Latinos, Native Americans and Asians. Down south in San Diego, the Ku Klux Klan activity between 1920 to 1980 was more focused on Latinos. Prejudice against Latinos resulted in the 1931 Lemon Grove incident, the first successful desegregation case in the US.
Although considered “white,” Latinos were relegated to supposedly separate but equal schools in California, but challenged the practice in San Diego and Orange counties. Mendez v. Westminister in 1946 preceded Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and for Thurgood Marshall proved to be useful for his strategies in the latter. The Chinese American family of Joseph and Mary Tape had previously sued the San Francisco Unified School District (Tape v. Hurley in 1885) to insure that Chinese American children were given a public education.
In California, Latinos and Asian Americans have been active in the civil rights movements and while most people know of 1954 Brown v. Board of Education and the 1967 Loving v. Virginia, without knowing the actual lynching statistics and legal precedents for California, how can one talk about race, ethnicity and the legacy of systemic racism in Los Angeles or Southern California or the state of California? If you want to talk about demilitarization of the LAPD, watch “Heat” and remember, while Phillips and Mătăsăreanu weren’t as disciplined and meticulous at DeNiro’s McCauley (and more like Val Kilmer’s gambling addicted Chris Shiherlis), the two did successfully commit more than one robbery and it was only chance that brought them down and not an obsessive detective.
Recommended movies and TV Programs:
- Criminal Minds, Season Two: “Psychodrama” and Season Seven, “Hit”
- PBS Frontline: LAPD Blues (2001)
- Heat (1995) on Netflix
- Mugshots: Rafael Pérez – LAPD’s Notorious Cop (2013) on Amazon Prime Video
- Rampart (2011) on Amazon Prime Video
- Training Day (2001) on Amazon Prime Video
- SWAT (2017-present)on Hulu
Names of the officers involved in the North Hollywood Shootout:
- Officer Don Anderson
- Detective Tracey Angeles
- Detective Vincent Bancroft, Jr.
- Officer Edward Brentlinger
- Officer Anthony Cabunoc
- Officer John Caprarelli
- Detective Thomas Culotta
- Officer Edwin Dominguez
- Officer Steven Gomez
- Detective Kevin Harley
- Officer Richard Massa
- Sergeant Israel Medina
- Officer Charles Perriguey
- Officer Todd Schmitz
- Officer Conrado Torrez
- Detective Lawrence Winston
- Detective Phillip Wixon
- Officer James Zboravan
- Officer Richard Zielinski