The road to Ferguson: This 1980 bank robbery changed how American police are armed

Local police forces haven't always been outfitted with military-grade weapons and armored tanks. Norco changed that

Published June 9, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)

Police attempt to control demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.  (Getty/Scott Olson)
Police attempt to control demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. (Getty/Scott Olson)

When the images of heavily-armed city cops mounted atop a fleet of armored personnel carriers facing down a crowd of protesters in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri flickered across our television sets in August of 2014, many Americans wondered how we had gotten to this point. It is indeed a long and winding road to what is termed as “the militarization” of local police forces, and one that brings us back to an unlikely beginning: a single gun in the hands of a single sheriff’s deputy high on a mountainside above Los Angeles in the spring of 1980.

There is no doubt that the most profound moment on the journey to militarization was the federal government’s 1033 program inaugurated by Bill Clinton in 1997, authorizing the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military gear to local police forces.

In the wake of Ferguson, many thought the program had gone too far. Certainly the optics were not great: Mostly white cops armed to the teeth facing down an unarmed crowd of mostly black citizens. President Barack Obama certainly felt that way, putting in place tighter controls over what weapons would be made available and under what conditions. While the new rules did not ban any of the weapons previously available, they now required police forces to provide a “persuasive explanation” as to why they needed weapons such as grenade launchers, weaponized aircraft, .50 caliber machine guns, and bayonets.

When, not surprisingly, the Trump administration reversed all of Obama’s curbs on the program by executive order in September of 2017, many in the local law enforcement community rejoiced. In a post 9-11 world, as NYPD Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch had said earlier, "Every patrol car should be a mini counter-terrorism unit with heavy weapons, ballistic vests and helmets”.

But there was once a time when the general consensus in American policing was that more and bigger was not better, that certain lines were best not stepped over.

For one, there was a fear that increasing the fire power of local agencies would trigger an arms race between the cops and the criminals, especially among organized drug gangs. And then there were impracticalities of having all this high-priced, complex gear hanging around. After all, you can’t just park a tank in the department vehicle yard until you need it and then stuff any old SWAT team member down the turret to operate the thing when the time comes. Whether they be tactical armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, or M-16 rifles, this stuff costs a fortune to maintain, tends to break down or jam when they are not, and requires specialized, ongoing training of personnel to use properly.

But all it took was one big event in which the cops were so devastatingly outgunned to sweep all those concerns aside. And that brings us back to a washed-out fire road, 6,500 feet up a mountainside almost 40 years ago.

On May 9, 1980, five heavily armed men in ski masks stormed the Security Pacific Bank in the dusty little town of Norco, California, 50 miles east of Los Angeles in what turned into one of the most violent events in law enforcement history.

Riverside County Sheriff's deputies responding to the scene immediately found themselves in a ferocious firefight in a crowded Southern California intersection with a band of criminals armed with semi-automatic, high-powered rifles, high capacity magazines and thousands of rounds of ammo. For close to an hour, a running gunbattle blazed through the streets of Norco, onto a crowded interstate and into the San Gabriel Mountains, where the desperate outlaws savagely ambushed pursuing police and then vanished into the rugged canyons of Mount Baldy.

When it was all over, three were dead, including Riverside Deputy James Evans, who was killed in the ambush on Mount Baldy. Seven other officers and four civilians were wounded by gunfire, and 33 law enforcement vehicles either disabled or destroyed, including a police helicopter grounded over San Bernardino County.

In one of the world’s greatest understatements, then-Riverside Sheriff Ben Clark said afterwards, “The bad guys simply had the better weapons”

By “better,” Clark was referring to a Colt AR-15, Colt Shorty AR and Heckler & Koch HK93, all civilian versions of the M-16 used by American troops in Vietnam. In addition, ringleader George Smith had armed himself with a Heckler .308 caliber semi-automatic rifle so powerful it could crack the engine block and kill any animal in the world from a half mile away with a single shot. Armed with 40-round capacity magazines taped together up-down-up “jungle style,” the bad guys were able to fire 120 rounds a minute. That day they fired over a thousand.

“And there we were, responding with a Winchester shotgun and a little six shooter,” Riverside Deputy Kurt Franklin said, referring to the same weapons sheriff’s deputies had been using to police the Wild West for over 100 years.

But there was one other gun up there on the mountain, and it was the one that finally sent the bushwhacking outlaws scattering into the canyon. San Bernardino Deputy D.J. McCarty was just getting off his shift when he heard the radio reports of heavily armed men shooting up every cop they saw. McCarty raced to get the only high-powered rifle in the entire department, a military M-16 confiscated from a drug dealer months before.

With fellow Deputy Jim McPheron behind the wheel, the two men raced up Lytle Creek Canyon to get to the front of the pursuit line. Wounded in the same hail of gunfire that killed Deputy Jim Evans, McCarty leapt from his vehicle and swept the roadway with .223 caliber bullets, driving off the bank robbers who had been advancing on police just moments before.

McCarty was awarded the medal of valor for his actions, but gives equal if not more importance to the weapon itself. “Without that gun, I am just another dead cop on that mountain who never stood a chance.”

San Bernardino County Sheriff Frank Bland moved fast in the wake of Norco, presenting that county’s Board of Supervisors with an extensive shopping list that included three dozen automatic weapons as well as $5,500 to buy an M-60 machine gun to mount on one of his choppers. With his request for the M-60, Bland stepped beyond the world of civilian law enforcement weaponry to that of military-grade, far surpassing anything found in the arsenal of any local police force. The M60, widely used in the Vietnam War, is a belt-fed machine gun capable of firing 750 rounds of .308 ammunition per minute.

One county over, the more methodical Riverside Sheriff Ben Clark was still holding the line on moving to military weapons despite having lost one deputy and having five others shot. Clark felt Norco was an anomaly, not yet an established trend. Arming his force with heavy weapons was a Rubicon Clark was reluctant to cross.

It did not take long for the deputies to turn against their own department and Clark, accusing both of ignoring the growing trend toward more powerful weapons in the hands of the bad guys. “He wants tempers to cool in hopes we will all forget the demands,” said Robert Russell, a representative of the deputies.

Many of Clark’s deputies went ahead and armed up themselves. “Most of the deputies are now carrying the guns the Sheriff said we can’t have,” an unidentified deputy said at the time. “At shift change, there are a lot of AR-15s and Mini-14s going into the trunks and under the front seats of patrol cars.” The message was clear: If their department wasn’t going to protect them, they’d do it themselves.

Under pressure from both inside and outside the department, Clark took the plunge, abruptly announcing the purchase of forty Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifles used by the military. Orders for more followed. Clark also announced he was forming eight heavily-armed SWAT teams and ordering an additional dozen Ruger Marksman rifles chambering .308 ammunition with which to arm them. A program was begun to have the deputies turn in their Smith & Wesson .38 revolvers for 15-round capacity semi-automatic pistols. In the meantime, the officers were told they were welcome to bring their own to work. Most did.

Within months of the Norco bank robbery, the two sheriff’s departments had gone from a pair of high-powered rifles between them to over 100 and counting. Helicopters, which had been unarmed before Norco, now circled overhead with machine guns at the ready to rain dozens of rounds of ammunition down on hostile suspects if needed. The age of the “Patrol Rifle Program” had begun as military-grade weapons moved beyond the province of highly trained SWAT teams to that of standard-issue firearms for the regular cop on the streets.

“A good place to mark the beginning of the modern patrol rifle concept — in which a rifle is a normal part of the everyday kit — is the Norco bank robbery,” wrote columnist Mike Wood in a 2015 article for entitled “How the Norco bank robbery gave rise to patrol rifle programs.”

“The incident at Norco was a slap in the face that awoke California law enforcement to the fact that heavily armed, coordinated groups of deadly opponents were a fact of life,” wrote law enforcement weapons expert Massad Ayoob in an article for Hendon Media Group. “Lessons learned from Norco and subsequent tragic events have altered police training and the police arsenal for the better.”

Not everyone in law enforcement, not even in Riverside County, are as full-throated in their endorsement of the change as Ayood. “Norco showed that there is no doubt we needed to increase our firepower to meet what we were seeing on the streets,” says former Riverside County Sheriff Cois Byrd, a member of Clark’s staff at the time and the man who implemented the move to standardize high-powered rifles and high-capacity sidearms. “But these programs need to be carefully controlled and monitored, rather than just flooding agencies with complicated weaponry that can make matters worse if not properly maintained and trained on.”

In announcing the Trump administration’s reversal of the Obama-era restriction, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions selectively referenced studies published in the American Economic Journal to claim that the heavy weaponry reduces crime on a local level, despite evidence that, in the words of one of the studies, such "weapons do not appear to work as a deterrence tool."

But all this talk of deterrence may be missing the point. Many more pragmatic voices in law enforcement see all this military-grade gear as “worst case scenario” weapons. “Your hope is that you never have to use most of this stuff, but there might be times when you have to,” says former Sheriff Byrd. “That was certainly the thinking when we upgraded our weapons after Norco.”

If Ferguson was an example of a local police force bringing too much equipment to bear too soon, what happened in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015 is an example of why having some of this same equipment around might now be necessary.

At 11:00 a.m. on that day, two Islamic extremists armed with AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, thousands of rounds of .223 ammunition and homemade pipe bombs burst into the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, and opened fire on an employee meeting inside. Within minutes, 14 were dead and 22 seriously injured. The suspects fled the scene, immediately sparking the largest manhunt in the Inland Empire since the Lytle Creek Canyon search for the Norco Bank robbers 35 years before.

But this time when law enforcement agencies throughout the Inland Empire responded, they came equipped with more than just a single, beat-up M-16. Hundreds of officers from seven different agencies swarmed the region armed with semi-automatic weapons, such as the Ruger Mini-14 and the Glock G-22 pistol. Police traversed the streets of San Bernardino in Bearcat armored personnel carriers while the skies above swarmed with police choppers now equipped as “gun platforms.”

When facing the same weapons used in Norco and criminals just as determined to fight to the death with them, the result this time was also very different. Trapping the fleeing SUV in a suburban neighborhood four hours later, the two suspects were killed within five minutes in a hail of 440 rounds of police gunfire with no additional casualties to police or civilians.

In the immediate aftermath, the lesson learned from Norco was mentioned by more than a few local police officials as the genesis of area law enforcement’s ability to rapidly deploy with such overwhelming force to neutralize superior firepower.

In a 2017 article for Vice, "How a 1980 Bank Robbery Sparked the Militarization of America’s Police," writer Daniel Oberhaus pinpointed the transformation to a specific moment and the actions of a single deputy 35 years before, D.J. McCarty:

When backup for the responding officers finally arrived, bringing a single AR-15 in tow, the robbers fled into the woods. . . .  “When the suspects hear[d] that rifle, they realize[d] their firepower [was] now being matched,” recalled responding officer Rolf Parkes. “There would have been a lot more dead cops on that road if not for that weapon.”

By Peter Houlahan

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