Tactical Breakdown: The North Hollywood Bank Robbery

North Hollywood Shootout

Photo Credit: Frank Wiese / Los Angeles Times

Here at USA Carry, we’ve talked a lot about training. We’ve broken down various approaches to CCW, EDC, and other self-defense issues. We’ve offered examples of good gun handling and tactics from movies and television. In this article we’re going to take a different track and look at one of the better documented shootouts of the last few decades: the North Hollywood Bank Robbery of 1997. Also known as the Battle of North Hollywood, this confrontation between criminals and police tells us a lot about force-on-force confrontations and the tactics that go into them.

Some Background on the North Hollywood Bank Robbery

The perpetrators, Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu, had criminal records both collectively and separately. In addition to their own backgrounds of petty crime and fraud, the two had previously executed a few other armed robberies against armored vehicles and banks—netting up to $1.5 million at a go. Armed with an assorted arsenal of illegal purchased and illegally modified weapons, they were caught up in pattern of escalating violence and crime that would ultimately result in tragedy.

On the morning of February 28, 1997, the duo put their latest plan into action: an armed robbery of a Bank of America branch located at 6600 Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood. The were well prepared, bristling with an illegal arsenal including a modified Norinco Type 56 S-1, a modified Bushmaster XM15 Dissipater, a semi-automatic HK-91, and more than 3,000 rounds of ammunition in illegally box and drum magazines. The duo were also had body armor; Phillips was wearing Type IIIA armor including a vest, and groin guard, while Mătăsăreanu wore a Type IIIA vest with a trauma plate for additional protection from penetration and impact.

The Robbery

Positioning their vehicle in the bank’s parking lot, they used their police scanner to establish a response time for law enforcement—roughly eight minutes. Setting their watches accordingly, they entered the bank. This is where things started to go wrong for the would-be robbers. As they walked into the building, they were spotted by two LAPD officers who happened to be driving by in a patrol car. The officers called in a possible bank robbery and requested backup

Once inside the bank, the criminals were again spotted by an armed security guard, who radioed for his partner to call the police. Phillips then shouted “This is a f****** hold up” before he and Mătăsăreanu began firing their weapons into the ceiling in order to frighten and intimidate the crowd. Phillips shot through the security door, giving them access to the teller line and the bank vault, forcing the bank’s manager to open the latter. However: the bank’s delivery schedule had changed, and the available supply of cash was relatively low. Phillips and Mătăsăreanu exited the bank with a little over $300,000, much lower than the several million they had anticipated.

The Shootout Begins

Outside the bank, the Los Angeles Police Department was preparing its response. The first patrol car to respond had positioned itself outside the back door of the bank, with additional patrol and detective units arriving to take strategic positions around the perimeter. The criminals split up, with Phillips exiting via the north side of the bank and Mătăsăreanu leaving through the south door. Phillips immediately engaged the officers on his side, firing for several minutes during which ten people were wounded. Here, the limits of the officer’s armament became apparent: equipped with 9mm and .38 caliber handguns and an assortment of 12 gauge shotguns they lacked either the range or the penetrating power to successfully counter Phillips and Mătăsăreanu. Frustrated, several officers commandeered AR15s from a nearby gun store in order to better arm themselves.

18 minutes into the shootout, the LAPD’s SWAT team arrived, equipped with body armor and AR15s. Using an armored vehicle, they were able to rescue wounded officers and civilians and begin to reverse the tide of battle.

Things Come to an End

While the officers were underarmed, they were not entire ineffective. Mătăsăreanu has sustained several serious wounds, which forced him to abandon his bag of money and race to the getaway vehicle. Phillips was relatively unscathed, and moved to the vehicle as well to retrieve the HK-91 from the trunk. However, as he entered the vehicle both Phillips and his rifle were struck by several rounds, wounding the man and rendering the gun ineffective. Ditching the HK-91 for the Norinco Type 56, Philips retreated down the street while Mătăsăreanu drove away. Phillips took cover behind a car and returned fire until his rifle jammed. Then, drawing a Beretta 92FS, he fired until a bullet to his right hand forced him to drop his handgun. Retrieving it with his left hand, he attempted suicide by putting the muzzle under his chin; as he shot he was also struck several times by rounds fired by the police. When he fell, officers rushed over and cuffed Phillips.

Meanwhile, with his vehicle disabled after police shot out the tires, Mătăsăreanu hijacked another vehicle. After moving all of his weapons and ammo to his new ride, he attempted to continue his getaway but was stymied by his inability to drive a manual transmission. With the cops in hot pursuit, Mătăsăreanu took cover behind his original getaway car and continued the shootout until a SWAT officer fired under the car, striking Mătăsăreanu in his unarmed legs. He dropped to the ground and surrendered.

Tactical Breakdown

Due to the near-immediate news coverage, the multiple eye-witnesses, and the nature of the shootout, the North Hollywood Bank Robbery is a fortunately rare case in which we can follow a gun battle from start to finish with a great degree of detail. There are a lot of lessons to learn here, and I’m grateful to Tiger McKee’s The Book of Two Guns for its detailed analysis of guns and gunfights. I’ll try to distill that here, filtered through my own thoughts.

There are limits to what handguns do. While sidearms are near-perfect weapons of immediate personal defense, they trade range and stopping power for portability, conceal-ability, and rapid deployment. All other things being equal, they are inferior to long weapons

To quote the old saying, “Speed is fine, but accuracy is final”. Volume of fire gave the criminals an initial advantage, but the fight was ultimately resolved by accurate and considered marksmanship rather than spray-and-pray. The superior training of the police officers involved ultimately paid off, and the lesson for the civilian self-defense shooter is “keep your skills sharp”.

Malfunctions and failures will happen, so train for them. ‘Nuff said.

Laws can’t protect us. To haul out my political soapbox for a moment: this incident took place during the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which ran from 1994-2004. Phillips was a convicted felon, and thus unable to legally buy any firearm. In addition, it took place in a state and city which both had relatively restrictive gun laws in place prior to the ban taking effect. None of those law was able to prevent the bad guns from acquiring, illegally modifying, and ultimately using the weapons they needed to commit their crimes.

Wounded folks can keep fighting. In the aftermath of the battle, it became readily apparent that Phillips and Mătăsăreanu both sustained serious injuries to unprotected areas of their bodies and kept moving and fighting. On the other side, several police officers were wounded and able to stay in the fight, while civilians who became collateral damage were often able to evacuate themselves from the scene despite their wounds. In a self-defense situation, remember that injury doesn’t necessarily put you out of the fight. Dig down deep and keep going as best you can.

As always, think past your gun. Situational awareness on the part of patrol cops and security guards alerted the authorities to the bank robbery and enabled them to get a head-start on their response. The first aid skills of both officers and civilians kept many injuries from becoming fatalities. Your firearm is not your only self-defense tool, so be prepared for other contingencies as well.

Finally, initiative counts. The police officers were able to contain Phillips and Mătăsăreanu because they had time to prepare a response and gain/maintain some initiative despite their initially inferior armament. This has ramifications for the civilian self-defense shooter. While you will not have the luxury of picking the time and place in which you are forced to use your CCW in self-defense, you can train to respond quickly and effectively. Get off the X, gain the initiative, and deal with the threat effectively.

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  • TexasJester

    Some years ago, I watched a documentary of the Shootout. The armored vehicle used was the type Brinks uses for cash transfers, as opposed to a military-style armored personnel carrier, as most people thing of armored vehicles. I don’t remember which company the truck belonged to; doesn’t matter.

    The officers flagged to truck down, asked if they could help retrieve some of the more seriously wounded – and the guards were more than happy to help! Saved numerous lives that day..

    Ron White did a bit on this. He noted that the robbers weren’t wearing armor on their heads, and couldn’t figure why the cops weren’t aiming for head shots, even after they got long guns. The police were still trying for center of mass, that was well protected.

    A Mexican comic (possibly Paul Rodriguez? Don’t remember now..) made a note that this happened fairly early in the morning. He said he heard the news announcers say “the police think the robbers may be black or hispanic gang members” – the comic KNEW they were white; black and hispanics, gang members or not, don’t get up that early in the morning!

    This whole episode changed the weaponry routinely carried in patrol cars across the country. I believe this was also the start of the militarization of the police forces.

  • richardstevenhack

    “in his unarmed legs” s/b “in his unarmored legs”… Proofreading Nazi

    The robbers really screwed up by not noticing the patrol car that spotted them entering the bank. Had they aborted the robbery at that point, the whole incident probably would not have occurred.

    Also, eight minutes in a bank is too long by four minutes. And once you’ve been spotted, four minutes is too long. Also, how the hell do you determine police response as eight minutes for your target by sitting in your car listening to police radio? That’s nonsense. Obviously they did it wrong because eight minutes is way too long.

    Not to mention that eight minutes was too long because the cops were able to surround the bank while they were still in there. Probably spent way too much time getting the vault open and grabbing the cash.

    Firing upon entry into the bank is also stupid. It does nothing but frighten the staff and customers and cause chaos. It’s done in most TV shows, but it’s dumb. You want control, not chaos. You want people to freeze, which is best done by command voice, not gunfire.

    Once they were in the firefight, this whole business of trying to move the guns and ammo from one car to the next is idiotic. Nothing like giving the cops time to surround you… They should have run and kept running, only stopping to do some suppressive fire as needed.

    He had his HK – his most effective weapon – in the TRUNK? Real efficient…

    All in all, a reasonably well-armed but not that well-executed bank robbery.

    • Gloomsinger

      Well, the good thing is most criminals are not the brightest people.

  • Gloomsinger

    After repeated failures through body armor, I agree head and lower leg shots should have been taken. Shotguns would’ve been far more effective if the shotguns were choked tighter (for those being used with buckshot and/or the buckshot was a more powerful round. I used nickel-plated 00 nitro-mag rounds back then, much more powerful than standard police rounds. Today I use Hornady XTP exclusively. It’s 8 pellet, 00, 1600fps shot sent through an extended superfull choke. Not only does the pattern stay extremely tight for an extended range because of sheer speed, and the knockdown power is amazing. Instead of .38, which at the time was very outdated, they should have been using .357, and .40 instead of 9mm. Back in 1986 the FBI had a shootout with two serial bank robvers and suffered the loss of several agents. The agents had shotguns and pistols, several of which were .357, but were firing .38+P instead of the more powerful .357 rounds. The others were using 9mm and one had a .38 Special. After, agents were armed with 10mm, then a lighter 10mm round because many had problems with the recoil. It was shortly after that S&W developed the .40, which became the widely accepted standard to this day Today with modern ammo technology, 9mm and .38 is nothing to laugh at. They are much faster, more accurate and hit much harder than their predecessors.

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