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Tactical Lessons from the Norco Bank Robbery
Thirty years ago, a running gun battle with heavily armed, urban terrorist / bandits in Southern California previewed some of today’s concerns and began to shape police response policies.
On May 9, 1980, shortly before closing time, four men alighted from a green van and entered the Security Pacific Bank in Norco, Calif., leaving a fifth in the getaway vehicle to act as an outrider. All were armed with semi-automatic rifles or pump shotguns. An eyewitness called police and set into motion a chain of events that would eerily predict some of today’s high-risk police encounters and signal a need for change in police patrol tactics and equipment.
The five perpetrators, ranging in age from 17 to 30, had planned the act meticulously. Heavily armed, they had brought about a thousand rounds of ammunition with them and a huge array of homemade bombs, grenades and Molotov cocktails. In addition, each was carrying one or more handguns. They had clearly prepared to “go to war” with any police who intervened.
The first responding officer, a young Riverside County Sheriff’s deputy named Glyn Bolasky, arrived as the primary robbery team was making its exit and came under heavy fire. Wounded in the shoulder early on, Bolasky was fired at some 200 times, according to reconstruction, with nearly 50 projectiles striking his patrol car. He was wounded five times, including multiple hits to his arms.
Nonetheless, the brave young officer was able to unlimber his shotgun and employ it effectively, killing the driver of the getaway car, Belisario Delgado, and causing the van to crash, stranding the rest of the robbery team in place. When his shotgun ran dry, Bolasky emptied his six-shot service revolver in a firefight that now encompassed multiple additional responding officers.
The four surviving perpetrators grabbed a quantity of explosives and ammunition from their disabled van and made their escape in a hijacked truck. The police pursuit grew to massive proportions and seemingly interminable length. Riverside County deputies were joined by elements of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office, the California Highway Patrol and municipal officers from multiple communities.
Throughout the chase, the perpetrators kept up a deadly stream of rifle fire from the rear of the truck, forcing the pursuing officers to fall back hundreds of yards. At least once, the suspects opened fire on innocent bystanders, apparently in the hopes that the officers would break off the chase to help injured citizens. With the same presumed intent, they also threw their improvised explosives at passing civilian automobiles, as well as at police vehicles. By this point, their gunfire had shed more police blood, and multiple patrol cars had been disabled by their rifle bullets.
Their flight initially carried the fugitives onto the interstate highway, but they now took a new tack and veered toward rural Lytle Creek, going up a dirt road toward a canyon. Riverside Deputy James B. Evans, now in the lead pursuit car, radioed to other officers that he sensed an ambush. His words were prophetic. The four suspects had bailed from their stolen truck and were awaiting Evans and his cruiser like a firing squad. They opened up on him as soon as he came into their line of sight.
Using the patrol car for cover, Evans valiantly returned fire with his service revolver at a range of some 56 yards. A Vietnam veteran who had served as a lieutenant in the Green Berets, Evans might have found four exposed men at that distance to be easy targets had he been armed with an AR-15, but a revolver at such range was a different story. Reloading his revolver and attempting to engage the gunmen again, Evans was shot through the eye with a high powered rifle bullet and killed instantly.
Shortly thereafter, San Bernardino County Deputy D.J. McCarthy was able to open fire on the four perpetrators with an AR-15 rifle. Realizing that for the first time they were up against an officer with their own level of firepower, the four cop-killers fled into the woods. Soon, hundreds of police officers had arrived at the scene, and what the local newspaper called a “Manhunt on Mount Baldy” was underway.
Responding officers included the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB). The following morning, members of this team engaged Manny Delgado, the brother of the gang member who had died at the bank, and killed him in a furious gunfight. By the next day, the bedraggled remaining gang members had surrendered. Christopher Harven, Russell Harven and George Smith were sentenced to life without parole.
The Norco Incident had resulted in one police officer dead, eight wounded and 33 police cars shot off the road. Also, a Riverside Sheriff’s Department helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing after being shot at by the bank robbers. Meanwhile, the perpetrators’ “haul” from the bank had been only $20,000.
Much courage was shown in this incident by too many police personnel to name in a short article. A fully detailed study of this complex incident and its learning points should be book-length. Look at Deputies Bolasky and Evans, vastly outnumbered and outgunned, remaining in the fight and scoring hits on their opponents nonetheless.
Consider Charles Hille, the first responder to make it to the side of embattled, wounded Deputy Bolasky. Finding Bolasky’s revolver empty, Hille reloaded it for him and remained at his side through the rest of the firefight at the bank. Remember McCarthy, engaging against four-to-one odds and putting his cop-killer opponents to disorganized retreat.
If the law enforcement valor shown by so many throughout the Norco Incident was timeless, the tactical lessons it taught were timely. Some law enforcement agencies implemented those lessons. Some did not.
The incident at Norco three decades ago 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. The slain Vietnam veteran, Deputy Evans, had told his wife shortly before his death that the law enforcement community where he worked seemed woefully unprepared for such an incident, and one day something would happen with multiple heavily armed homicidal criminals that would wreak havoc. His words proved to be eerily, and tragically, prophetic.
None of the first responding officers had firepower to equal high-powered rifle bullets that could enter one side of a police car and exit the other. Their buckshot-loaded shotguns and .38 caliber revolvers were no match for high-powered semi-automatic rifles.
In the short-term aftermath, involved agencies reevaluated their weapons policies. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBSD) soon made the Ruger Mini-14 .223 semi-automatic rifle standard equipment for its road deputies. This decision was validated many times over in armed encounters involving SBSD personnel during the following three decades.
Deputy Delgado’s situation—wounded, with an empty six-shooter—led many departments in the area to approve semi-automatic duty pistols before it became a nationwide trend and, eventually, the national standard.
The paradigm police sidearm of 1980 was still the six-shot revolver, with a total of 18 rounds on the officer’s person. Today’s most popular duty sidearms are 9mm and .40 caliber semi-automatics with high capacity magazines and two full reloads. This puts some 46 to 52 rounds at each officer’s immediate disposal and allows easier reload if, as in Bolasky’s case, the embattled officer has sustained injuries to both arms.
The SWAT concept was, if not in its infancy, certainly barely past adolescence at the time of the Norco incident. The inability of a widely scattered team to assemble and instantly contain a fast breaking situation was seen from the bank robbery to the chase, but once the perpetrators had gone to ground, the LASD SEB unit was able to assemble and make quick work of the surviving members of the robbery gang.
This would be repeated almost 20 years later in the North Hollywood bank robbery, where it took much of the 44 minutes from the first shot to the last for the LAPD SWAT team to get through traffic and reach the scene, at which time the threat was swiftly neutralized.
In 1980, police helicopters were seen more as observation tools and personnel delivery vehicles than as gun platforms. In the course of the Norco incident, one was forced down after being hit by gunfire by the perpetrators. Led by departments such as San Bernardino County Sheriff’s, many departments undertook coordinated training between SWAT and air units to teach effective air-to-ground small arms return fire. From California to Alaska, this would prove to be a successful strategy in lethal force encounters in later years.
In 1980, technology did not allow action news cameras to broadcast the Norco firefight in progress nationwide in real time. In 1997, the technology of the time allowed exactly that, and this is probably why North Hollywood received so much more national attention than Norco. There was more sympathy for the police from both the public and the governmental decision-makers, and it led more directly to public / government budget approval of such important threat-containment technology as standard issue patrol rifles and immediate availability of armored vehicles for extreme police emergencies.
In 1980, only SWAT had armor that could defeat rifle bullets. Today’s police departments have access to quickly donned rifle-plate vests that can be placed in each patrol vehicle for emergency use. We also have access to hand-carried shields that can defeat rifle fire and tactics that allow their use in rescuing and extricating downed officers from high-intensity gunfight scenes.
The Richmond, Va., Police Department has done pioneering work in making this technology and accompanying tactics available to rank and file patrol, and has excellent lesson plans on file which they have shared with other agencies. LAPD’s training staff had studied the Norco incident, and it inspired some of the training that allowed their personnel to extricate downed officers from the danger zone during the North Hollywood bank robbery almost 20 years later.
In 1980, a heavy vehicle like the gang’s stolen utility truck, occupied by violent felons with heavy weapons, was not safely approachable to be taken off the road with existing police technology. Today, we have readily deployable stop sticks, giving us a means to slow or stop vehicles without exposing officers to the gunfire of the occupants.
In the decades since Norco, we have seen replays of the heavily armed, highly mobile, cop-killing felon: the North Hollywood incident with LAPD, the Carl Drega incident in New Hampshire, the Okaloosa County incident in Florida, and more. Lessons learned from Norco and subsequent tragic events have altered police training and the police arsenal for the better. Yet there are still agencies that have not equipped and trained themselves in preparation for predictable replays of such events.
Massad Ayoob is a captain with the Grantham, N.H., Police and has been a contributor to LAW and ORDER since the early 1970s. He served 19 years as chair of the firearms committee for ASLET, 28 years as director of the Lethal Force Institute and is presently an advisory board member of ILEETA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Tactical Response, Jul/Aug 2010
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