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THE NORTH HOLLYWOOD SHOOTOUT

LAPD Commander Turned Holdup 'Bedlam' Into Order

Crime: Royal Scott LaChasse wins praise for directing response, coordinating a flood of incoming officers.

March 04, 1997|JIM NEWTON and BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When the first shots were fired in last week's terrifying North Hollywood bank robbery, the top operations officials from the Los Angeles Police Department happened to be having breakfast together at the Auto Club near USC, where the top staff was handing out a set of annual awards.

One by one, beepers began chirping, and word quickly spread through the room that a major incident was unfolding in the San Fernando Valley. Cmdr. Royal Scott LaChasse--the No. 2 LAPD leader in the Valley and one with extensive anti-terrorism experience--turned to his boss, Valley Bureau Deputy Chief Martin Pomeroy, and offered to hurry to North Hollywood. Pomeroy agreed.

By midmorning, LaChasse, a chiseled, 27-year-veteran, had taken command of a sprawling, frightening and complicated situation. According to officers and others who worked inside the command center, LaChasse coolly coordinated the efforts of officers from across the LAPD, as well as firefighters, paramedics, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, FBI agents and others.

Officers poured in from around the city, desperate to help but in some cases unsure what to do. SWAT officers who had been working out at the Police Academy when they heard the news responded so quickly some were still wearing shorts. Radio frequencies crackled with tense, urgent commands. In dispatch tapes released Monday, out-of-breath officers at the scene called for assistance, and the staccato bursts of AK-47s could be heard in the background. A dispatcher called out: "Multiple officers hit. They're sending in a tank for the officers." An officer shouted: "I've been hit. I've been hit." Another officer told the dispatcher to warn the air units: "Get some altitude. These suspects are armed with automatic weapons."

Police at the scene were woefully outgunned. Scores of officers sought details and directions as their commanders struggled to keep track of it all.

"There was," LaChasse recalled, "absolute bedlam."

LaChasse, who served as incident commander for the event, quickly established a command post in front of a furniture store around the corner from the bank, and from there wrestled control of the LAPD response.

The robbery of a Bank of America branch and its bloody aftermath left 11 officers and six civilians injured. Both robbers--who pummeled officers and a suburban neighborhood with bullets from AK-47s--died in the shootout.

As they sort out the details of the LAPD's actions during last week's chilling robbery, city and Police Department leaders credit LaChasse with helping to restore order and with supervising a heroic series of police efforts.

"Not to take anything away from anyone else, but LaChasse was so cool, so calm, so in charge," said Police Commission President Raymond C. Fisher. "He was superb."

Mayor Richard Riordan also commended LaChasse, as did police officers and others working the command post.

"Scott did an exceptional job, just great," Pomeroy said.

*

There is irony in the praise now being heaped on LaChasse. Until last year, he was a key figure in LAPD's Headquarters Bureau. But he was transferred to the Valley against his will, a move that many Police Department insiders believed was in retaliation for his leading role in the Command Officers' Assn., which has been openly critical of Police Chief Willie L. Williams.

In the wake of the shooting, however, neither LaChasse nor the department were interested in rehashing old controversies.

"I think the timing was ill-advised," LaChasse said of his transfer. "But it's like everything else. You don't own the job."

Cmdr. Tim McBride, the LAPD's chief spokesman, said that because of the transfer--whatever its merits--the Police Department ended up with the right man in the right place at the right time.

"You have to have the right guy in that position--and we did," McBride said. "As chaotic as it was--the shooting had just stopped--he had assigned all the officers . . . and set up a command post. I marveled at that."

McBride acknowledged that there had been some hard feelings about LaChasse's transfer, but he stressed that Friday's events showed the value of having top-notch leaders deployed across the city.

"You put your very best people in your operational entities," McBride said. "That's what happened in this situation."

The magnitude of the fast-moving situation unfolded on LaChasse's police radio as he raced to North Hollywood from the awards breakfast.

He heard officers were firing at the suspects outside the bank but that "they weren't going down." Then he heard that the suspects appeared to have AK-47s and appeared to be wearing body armor--a combination that suggested the event was highly unusual even in a city that leads the nation in bank robberies.

Arriving at the scene shortly before 10 a.m., LaChasse was debriefed by a North Hollywood lieutenant, the highest-ranking police officer present. At that point, the information was sketchy.

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