How the Norco bank robbery gave rise to patrol rifle programs
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
If you've been in law enforcement for the last decade or so, chances are good that your agency has some kind of "patrol rifle" program, or is making plans to start one. Patrol rifles have become so common that it might surprise many of our younger cops that they're a relatively new addition.
Law enforcement rifle use throughout the 19th and 20th centuries was mostly limited to certain regions or special circumstances. They were popular in the Western frontier but infrequently seen in the major urban centers in the East. Along the Southwest border, agents and deputies frequently used rifles to combat bandits and smugglers, and in the "Roaring Twenties" the feds and local officers traded rifle and machinegun fire with bootleggers, bank robbers, and gangsters
But the average officer didn’t go to work with a rifle as part of his daily gear. After a hiatus in most locales during the 1940s and 1950s, some rifles came back out of the armories to combat civil unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. However, they largely disappeared from public view again, at least for officers assigned to patrol. If you needed a rifle, you had to call one of the newly-formed SWAT teams.
Eventually, the rifle became almost as common as the shotgun in a patrol car, but it’s not clear when exactly that shift occurred. The answer can vary from region to region, but I would argue that 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.
The Clash in Norco
On May 9, 1980, five violent criminals robbed the Security Pacific Bank in the unincorporated city of Norco, California. Their escape from the bank was interrupted by Riverside County Sheriff's Deputy Glyn Bolasky, who engaged the suspects with his revolver and pump shotgun as they fired at him with CAR-15, HK91, and HK93 rifles.
Despite serious wounds, the outgunned Deputy Bolasky managed to kill the driver of their getaway van, and the remaining four suspects fled the scene in a stolen truck.
The felons led deputies and officers from multiple agencies on a 25-mile chase that turned into a rolling gun battle, with the felons shooting 33 police vehicles and a police helicopter, and throwing homemade explosive devices at the officers and citizens.
During the chase and a hasty ambush at the end of the pursuit, the felons wounded eight deputies and officers and killed Deputy James Evans. The ambush collapsed when a lone deputy from an allied agency returned fire with an M-16 rifle, sending the band fleeing into the hills. In the ensuing manhunt, one robber was killed by SWAT and the remaining three surrendered.
Three of the four robbers who exited the bank were armed with semiautomatic .223 and .308 caliber rifles with large-capacity magazines, and the fourth was armed with a shotgun. They had more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition in reserve as well as a plentiful supply of explosives and handguns.
Officers were armed with .38 caliber revolvers and some 12-gauge shotguns, none of which could match the power or range of the centerfire rifles they faced. Early in the engagement, deputies were shooting at ranges in excess of 60 yards, beyond the effective range of their guns. The same happened during the ambush at the termination of the pursuit.
In contrast, the deputies were always in range of the rifle-armed felons, who could engage them with impunity while remaining outside of the deputies’ reach.
As mentioned, one deputy was prescient enough to draw an M-16 rifle from the armory and join the chase, but he wasn’t able to catch up to the chase until the very end. His entrance into the fight was further delayed by his unfamiliarity with the weapon, but thankfully, he was able to get the gun into action before it was too late and break up the ambush attack. Aside from this M-16, there was only one other rifle used by lawmen in the confrontation – a lever action .22 LR rifle which had been borrowed from a nearby target shooter. This weapon was fired without effect as the felons fled from the M-16 fire.
Patrol Rifle Programs Take Shape
The Norco Robbery was a wakeup call for Southern California law enforcement agencies – rifles needed to be in the field, not the armory. Concurrently, many agencies in Southern California were preparing for the upcoming 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
These agencies were concerned about the potential for terrorism – specifically after the 1972 attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Games – so the combination of Norco, the Olympics, and a rapidly-accelerating war against heavily armed drug cartels and street gangs, focused attention on the need to outfit patrol officers with long guns that extended their reach and power.
Shortly after Norco, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department began to place Ruger Mini-14 rifles in patrol cars, and other agencies followed. The California Highway Patrol (the largest agency in the state) armed its own patrol officers with Mini-14s starting in 1989.
The patrol rifle concept quickly spread, and by 1997 the Department of Defense had established the “1033 Program” to transfer surplus M-16 rifles to law enforcement. Agencies gobbled them up by the thousands to start their own patrol rifle programs, particularly after the high-profile 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery – where rifle-armed robbers kept LAPD officers at bay until SWAT arrived with rifles of their own – and the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks just a few years later.
Our history has shown that these rifles are essential tools for patrol, and we need to encourage training in their use. If you don’t have one in your patrol car, it’s time to fix that now.