LOS ANGELES (AP) — Dozens of Los Angeles police officers gathered at an emotional ceremony Tuesday to mark the 20th anniversary of an infamous gunbattle between police and two heavily armed bank robbers that changed the way police departments across the United States arm their officers.
The ceremony Tuesday morning honored the bravery and boldness of the hundreds of police officers who responded to the Feb. 28, 1997, shootout at a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood.
For 44 minutes, the officers armed with only their handguns dodged a barrage of bullets as they engaged in a fierce gunbattle with two heavily-armed suspects carrying AK-47 rifles and wearing body armor.
"Twenty years ago an attempted bank robbery transformed not just the city, but transformed law enforcement nationwide," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said. "The officers on scene were outgunned but they stepped up."
After the shootout, law enforcement agencies across the United States began upgrading their officers' weapons. Some police departments have also outfitted patrol cars with bullet-proof windows and door panels. In Los Angeles, patrol cars are now regularly outfitted with rifles, and officers carry higher-caliber handguns.
"I don't think I've ever been more scared," said Tonja Bellard, who was working as a police dispatcher during the shooting. "Our officers couldn't stop them — that was the scariest part. And we couldn't figure out how to overcome what was going on."
Matt Johnson, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the department's civilian oversight panel, said the shooting "changed the LAPD forever."
Hundreds of rounds were fired during the shootout, and 11 police officers and seven civilians were injured.
The two bank robbers, Larry Eugene Phillips Jr., 26, and Emil Matasareanu, 30, were killed.
After a bystander alerted authorities about the robbery, Phillips calmly walked on to the street and sprayed bullets at dozens of police officers who were powerless to take him down because they were armed only with handguns. Some would go to a nearby gun store to get rifles.
The suspects made their way to the bank parking lot, and Matasareanu was shot twice. Matasareanu then hopped into their getaway car for cover. He drove slowly next to Phillips, apparently urging him to get in, but Phillips kept walking and shooting.
Phillips was shot nearly a dozen times during the gunfight. After his gun jammed while he was pinned down behind a car, Phillips shot himself in the head. An autopsy report said the coroner couldn't determine if Phillips died from the barrage of police gunfire or from the self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Matasareanu, who was shot multiple times in the legs, bled to death not long after Phillips was killed. His family later sued two police officers and the city, claiming the officers were indifferent to Matasareanu's wounds at the scene and let him die. The case was declared a mistrial in 2000 and later dismissed.
The way police handled the incident without any bystanders or officers dying gave a badly needed morale boost to a department still reeling from the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the subsequent Los Angeles riots.
Follow Michael Balsamo on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MikeBalsamo1.