NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – The North Hollywood shootout changed the landscape of law enforcement. Every active duty cop in America, can tell you where he or she was when this event unfolded before our eyes on live television. It is worth revisiting the crime that occurred 20 years ago today.
LAPD Officer James Zboravan was two months and eight days out of the police academy when he faced a barrage of machine-gun fire, shot and wounded a bank robber and dove across unarmored officers to shield them with his bulletproof vest.
He was shot four times before leaping through an exploding glass doorway, reported Los Angeles Daily News.
“There was no time to be scared. It’s not a macho thing. There’s so much going on. You fall back on your training — the best in the world,” recalled Zboravan, an award-winning sergeant now serving as an assistant watch commander at Northeast Division. “The lesson is, very plainly: “Because you’re shot doesn’t mean you’re going to die. You must fight on.”
VIDEO: Sgt. James Zboravan, then a rookie, recalls the North Hollywood shootout
On Feb. 28, 1997, two men armed with fully automatic weapons and clad in heavy body armor did more than rob the Bank of America at 6600 Laurel Canyon Blvd. in North Hollywood.
For 44 thunderous minutes, they marched through a neighborhood under siege, spraying stores, homes and cars with 1,100 armor-piercing bullets, wounding 11 police officers and six bystanders.
More than 300 outgunned law enforcement officers from five agencies, fighting for their lives, fired back with more than 550 rounds. But most were from .38 revolvers or 9 mm pistols pitted against an arsenal of high-capacity AK-47s and automatic rifles.
The nation then watched the terror unfold on live TV as news helicopters broadcast the battle now known as the North Hollywood shootout.
When the shell casings stopped rolling, two bandits lay dead — one after shooting himself after sustaining 10 gunshot wounds — and the other after bleeding to death from 29 gunshots after telling police, “F— you. Shoot me in the head.”
A ‘Seminole Moment’
Like the scars still left by the hail of bullets across North Hollywood, the gunbattle would transform the Los Angeles Police Department, boosting its reputation after the Rodney King Jr. incident, while altering its response to what became known from then on as “an active shooting situation.”
Los Angeles, once known as the bank-robbery capital of the world with up to 900 heists in 1992, according to the FBI, had 11 such heists last year after police tactics developed after the infamous shootout were implemented.
The shootout also left indelible marks on scores of cops and civilians, with many suffering depression, nightmares and flashbacks more typical of battle-scarred soldiers. For their heroism, 19 officers would receive medals of valor.
One seriously wounded officer who later quit the force to become a minister said: “I heard the devil; he told me: ‘You’re gonna die, you’re gonna die.’ ”
Hollywood, 14 months after the bank-robbing movie “Heat,” the shootout laid siege to North Hollywood. The real-life gunbattle then inspired made-for-TV documentaries and movies.
“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.
LaChasse will join Los Angeles and federal officials today at the North Hollywood police station for a 20th anniversary tribute in honor those who stopped the North Hollywood bank bandits.
Twenty years later, the North Hollywood shootout is still vivid for those who suffered through it, and it has become part of the cultural lore of Los Angeles. Officers routinely talk about their role, who they knew that participated, and how it forced law enforcement to rethink tactics and deployment of resources.
At the Los Angeles Police Museum in Highland Park, the robbers’ outfits, protection, and guns are on display in what has proved to be its most popular exhibit. Out back, their bullet-ridden getaway car, a destroyed LAPD black-and-white, and an armored car that helped rescue cops and civilians gathers crowds.
“We did a great job,” said David Fryar, director of the nonprofit museum. “If you look at the civilians who were injured, the policemen who were injured, the cars that were destroyed, it was amazing that nobody died.”
(Image screen shots from National Geographic YouTube video)