A wild street shootout between Los Angeles police and automatic-weapons-wielding bank robbers has opened a new chapter of self-examination for local law enforcement in America's second largest city.
The initial outgunning of the police during Friday morning's gunfight was played out in vivid color on live television. At the height of the crisis, several officers had to resort to the arsenal of a nearby gun store to commandeer nine rifles with enough firepower to pierce their assailants' protective clothing.
The incident not only underscores the degree to which media coverage can heighten the public's insecurity about crime, but it may also prove to be a factor in next month's elections in Los Angeles. Mayor Richard Riordan (R) and Police Chief Willie Williams, both up for reelection, have butted heads for years about how best to manage the Los Angeles Police Department.
At the same time, the incident has renewed a debate over gun control and whether police officers should be armed with more powerful weapons.
"We are going to examine and reexamine all the issues of relative firepower for police vs. criminals," says Chief Williams. "We have gone from .38s [calibers] to nine millimeters to .45s for many officers. This shows that no matter what, we will be outgunned ... we are behind the curve and are still catching up."
Yet some city officials urged against overreacting to this event and Williams appeared unwilling to arm all police with assault rifles. "You can't equip our general patrol officer with an AK-47. We're supposed to live in somewhat of a civilized society, " he says. Currently, the LAPD SWAT officers are the only ones authorized to carry heavy weapons.
Dressed in black body armor, the two bandits toted AK-47 assault rifles and a car trunk's worth of ammunition and other weapons. They shot up the inside of a North Hollywood bank before spraying the surrounding neighborhood with hundreds of bullets while trying to escape. Eleven officers were wounded, eight by gunshots, and five civilians were hurt in the subsequent gun battle. Both robbers were shot and killed in the gunfight.
The incident is the third high-profile shooting case here in two months, following the murder of Ennis Cosby and the maiming of an innocent resident by armor-clad SWAT officers. It comes at a crucial juncture for Williams, whose public support has been rising over his handling of these cases.
At the same time, however, a citizen police commission filled with Mayor Riordan appointees seems to be attempting to oust Williams. Some political observers suggest that criticism of Mayor Riordan has been increasing, in part because of his failure to make good on his first-term campaign pledge to put 3,000 more police officers on the street. The LAPD has far fewer officers per resident than any other major American city.
In addition to the local elections, April marks the fifth anniversary of the worst riots in US history, set off by the acquittal of four white officers charged with beating black motorist Rodney King. The emotions that led to those riots were set off, in part say experts, by the repeated showing of the videotape of Mr. King being repeatedly clubbed. The tape galvanized national and world opinion and set off a wave of investigations into police brutality.
Some experts feel the North Hollywood episode may have the same power of public persuasion. If the same incident had occurred outside the view of local TV cameras, they say, it might not have generated the widespread sense of community concern.
"The presence of live cameras overhead turned this into a kidnapping of the city's attention," says Brian Stonehill, a media theorist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "Every viewer could see and hear for himself the astonishing lack of fear of these [robbers]." Outside the live media eye, the event could have just been a minor crime story, he says.
But at least some police here were heartened by the coverage, which showed the public what officers say they face every day.
"This graphically highlights the dilemma of the police officer in America today," says Lt. Nick Zingo, a 22-year LAPD veteran who helped wage the battle against the robbers. Twenty years ago, two of Lieutenant Zingo's partners were killed by automatic weapons in a similar shootout.
Though he knows crime rates are dropping across America, Zingo says criminals increasingly are resorting to violence.
"This is the same old story that I have been worried about for two decades - suspects who have the capability of high-powered weapons that I don't have," says Zingo. "When officers get into situations like this, the odds are not in their favor."
"I can't think of a more graphic, visual reason for the public of the United States to get on board in advocating for rational, sensible gun control," says Laura Chick, chair of the Los Angeles City Council's Public Safety Committee. "These people are better armed than our law-enforcement experts. We have to find a way to eliminate military assault weapons being out on the streets."