LAPD reflects on 20th anniversary of North Hollywood bank robbery shootout

Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most violent days in the history of Los Angeles, but it doesn't seem that long ago to one of the officers who was involved in the North Hollywood bank shootout.

A dozen officers and eight civilians were injured on Feb. 28, 1997, during a 44-minute gun battle with two gunmen carrying fully automatic assault rifles and protected by full body armor.

"Twenty years is a long time, but it doesn't feel like 20 years. It feels like a lot less," said retired LAPD Officer John Caprarelli, who exchanged gunfire with robbers Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu, who were killed in the gun battle.

VIDEO: Reporter Hal Eisner's interview with retired LAPD officer John Caparelli.

"You know, you kind of really never forget it," he told City News Service. "That's how I would put it. You can never put that aside 100 percent."

The day isn't just remembered for the heroics of some of the outgunned officers, or the way the incident played out on live television, but also for how it forever changed law enforcement. "They (the suspects) were armed and prepared more than the officers responding. That was a game changer," City Councilman Mitchell Englander told CNS.

"That was a wakeup call," he said. "Not only is this weaponry available to the mass market, but anybody can deploy it for any reason. So the (police) weaponry changed ... the tactics and the training changed. Every law enforcement agency in the country changed in how to respond to those incidents."

Phillips and Matasareanu had meticulously planned the armed robbery at the Bank of America branch at 6600 Laurel Canyon Blvd. for months, and had even calculated the expected LAPD response time by listening to police scanners. But they did not foresee that two police officers would happen to drive by and see them as they entered the bank.

By the time they exited the bank eight minutes later, police had surrounded the building and the robbers immediately unloaded their illegally altered assault rifles, striking multiple officers.

Caprarelli, a 15-year veteran, was the senior lead officer for nearby Studio City at the time. "At that point we couldn't just sit there, we had to try and help these guys calling over the radio, `I'm hit, I'm hit.' It was just very surreal," he recalled.

Caprarelli came within inches of dying several times. At one point he took cover behind a cinder block wall, only to have Phillips spray bullets that went right through it. At another point, he ran up behind Phillips and fired at him six times from close range, striking the suspect, "but because of all that body armor he had on, it just got his attention," Caprarelli said.

"It was just like, `Who is that?' He turned around and started to point the rifle at me, and luckily it jammed." Caprarelli ran and dove over a fire hydrant in one of the famous TV clips from that day.

In all, the robbers fired about 1,200 rounds at officers, civilians and even a police helicopter. But hundreds of officers converged to surround the area, preventing their escape. An injured Phillips took his own life and Matasareanu surrendered but bled out at the scene.

The shootout didn't end there for Caprarelli. That same night, bad dreams and the beginnings of post-traumatic stress disorder began to take hold. "My wife said, `You know, you were yelling, giving warnings in your sleep.' I was like, `I don't remember any of that,"' he said. "From the first night, I started to experience post-traumatic stress stuff. And they had never told us about any of this stuff."

Not understanding what was wrong with him, Caprarelli never sought any professional help and turned down the LAPD's optional offer for a session with a therapist. He said he started drinking heavily, eventually suffering a stroke in 2002 that sidelined him from the force for a year.

He never worked in the field again, but after a year of rehab, he was able to come back and work desk duty, retiring in 2009. He was honored with the Medal of Valor, the LAPD's highest honor, and the National Association of Police Organizations' "Top Cops" award for his actions on the day of the shootout.

"It look me a long time to figure out that I'm not crazy, this is normal for someone who was involved in something like this so intimately. And now I know how to deal with it," Caprarelli said. "And over the years, I'm fine with it. But yeah, if I hear gunshots I get all ramped up, my heart starts racing, and that's a piece of it, but I understand it now."

Police in Los Angeles eventually became better equipped as a result of the shootout. Were it to happen today, one of the first officers responding would likely be armed with his or her own assault rifle. "Not only are police more equipped, but the tactics deployed are all different, in like how to take cover to reduce risk to the officers and the general public," said Englander, who is also a reserve officer with the LAPD and chair of the council's Public Safety Committee.

And how to help officers with PTSD has also changed, as officers involved in shootings now undergo mandatory mental evaluations. For Caprarelli, the evaluation was optional, and he said if he had gotten help right away, things might have turned out differently for him.

After retiring, Caprarelli wrote a book about his experiences, "Uniform Decisions: My Life in the LAPD and The North Hollywood Shootout," and he regularly speaks to police groups about the importance of recognizing the seriousness of PTSD.

Caprarelli and Englander planned to be on hand for a shootout remembrance event at 9 a.m. on Tuesday at the LAPD's North Hollywood Division. Mayor Eric Garcetti, Police Commission President Matt Johnson, Chief Charlie Beck and Councilman Paul Krekorian are also scheduled to attend.

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