Late last month, Donald Trump issued an executive order reversing an Obama-era ban on the transfer of certain kinds of military surplus weapons to local police departments. For a country still grappling with an epidemic of police violence, the announcement was met with concern, and in many cases, outright anger. With images of tanks descending on Ferguson protestors and the stoic countenance of Ieshia Evans before she is pulled behind a line of riot police seared into our national memory, it was difficult to make sense of a decree that encouraged these displays of military force.
Of course, the announcement also begged the broader question of how America's police became so militarized in the first place.
The answer can be traced in no small part to a bank robbery that occurred in 1980, at the tail end of Jimmy Carter's presidency. In that case, local cops found themselves significantly outgunned by the crooks they had been deployed to stop. The incident was later brandished as the justification for beefing up police firepower—and its legacy is still being felt today.
On the afternoon of May 9, 1980, four men entered the Security Pacific Bank in the town of Norco, California, while a fifth member of their crew kept watch outside. Armed with a suite of semiautomatic rifles, several handguns, a sword, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and 15 homemade bombs, the robbers demanded $20,000 from the terrified tellers inside the bank. Unbeknownst to the group, however, a teller at the bank across the street had witnessed them enter and called the police.
Within minutes, the first officer to respond—rookie cop Glyn Bolasky—was on the scene. The robber standing guard radioed his comrades to let them know cops had arrived, and the crew exited the bank, guns blazing. After shattering the window on Bolasky's cruiser and forcing the officer to return fire from behind the car, the robbers climbed into their van and attempted a getaway.
As they were pulling out of the parking lot, Bolasky stood and unloaded his shotgun on the vehicle. One of the shotgun pellets hit the driver in the back of the head, instantly killing him as the getaway van careened off the road.
"I saw the van do a weave and crash into the fence," Bolasky later recalled. But he realized his troubles were far from over when he saw "the guys getting out of the van and they started firing lots of rounds at my car."
All in all, the robbers fired 200 rounds at Bolasky, who was hit five times, including in the face. By this time, other police officers had begun arriving at the scene and firing back at the robbers, who took control of a yellow pickup at the intersection near the bank. What followed was a wild police pursuit over 25 miles during which the robbers threw explosives from the back of their truck and shot at the pursuing officers.
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The robbers eventually established a sufficient lead on the cops pursuing them, at which point they abandoned their truck to create an ambush. The first officer to reach the stopped truck was shot in the left eye and instantly killed, and police who arrived shortly thereafter found themselves heavily outgunned.
"We had our shotguns, our 38s, and our bare hands—no firepower," Fred Chisholm, one of the responding officers, later said. When backup for the responding officers finally arrived, bringing a single AR-15 in tow, the robbers fled into the woods. After a massive manhunt involving 200 officers that lasted the entire night, three of the robbers were apprehended the next day and one later killed in a firefight with police officers.
"When the suspects hear[d] that rifle, they realize[d] their firepower [was] now being matched," recalled responding officer Rolf Parkes. "There would have been a lot more dead cops on that road if not for that weapon."
By the time the dust had settled, eight police officers had been wounded, one killed, and 33 police vehicles heavily damaged—including a helicopter, which had been forced to land after enduring a barrage from the robbers and catching on fire.
In the immediate aftermath of the Norco robbery, "involved agencies reevaluated their weapons policies," according to an article published by the law enforcement media organization Hendon. This resulted in the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, one of the law enforcement agencies involved in the shootout, making the Ruger Mini-14 .233 semiautomatic rifle standard equipment for its deputies.
I reached out to the Riverside Sheriff's department to clarify the nature of the changes made to policing protocols in the department after the Norco robbery and the extent to which these changes were used as a model by other police departments in the United States. Although Riverside PD was unable to track down any of the officers involved in the shooting for comment, a spokesperson told VICE that "we can confirm that significant lessons were learned following the Norco Bank Robbery, with the two most prominent being significant strides in the weapons employees were trained on and authorized to carry following the incident as well as significant improvements to the radio system for improved communications."
The Hendon article added that the Norco incident had the effect of turning police helicopters from a mere surveillance tool into "gun platforms," and that many police departments began "coordinated training between SWAT and air units to teach effective air-to-ground small arms return fire."
As PoliceOne reported two years ago, the patrol rifle concept pioneered by San Bernardino cops "quickly spread, and by 1997 the Department of Defense had established the '1033 Program' to transfer surplus M-16 rifles to law enforcement" and "agencies gobbled them up by the thousands to start their own patrol rifle programs."
Today, the 1033 Program is alive and well, despite Obama's attempt to curtail its worst effects after the heavily militarized police response to the Ferguson protests in 2014. His ban didn't prevent police departments from purchasing military gear entirely, but specifically tracked armored vehicles (like tanks), weaponized aircraft, firearms and ammunition at or above .50 caliber, grenade launchers, bayonets, and camouflage uniforms.
Obama's policy, of course, did not sit well with every police department, some of whose leaders argued military weapons were necessary for their officers' safety. In August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told attendees at the National Fraternal Order of Police conference that Obama went "too far" in his ban. To justify his support for lifting it, Sessions cited two studies published in the American Economic Journal purportedly showing the gear reduces crime.
The first study found that "military aid reduces street level crime, the  program is cost-effective and there is evidence in favor of a deterrence mechanism." In other words, by examining the relationship between the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies between 2006 and 2012, and comparing this to crime rates in those areas, the researchers found that the militarized police forces have a "positive effect" on crime, particularly robberies, assaults, and motor vehicle thefts. The authors conclude that this is "most likely via a deterrence mechanism," the idea being that seeing police with military equipment can be a huge deterrent on crime. Interestingly, the study found that non-lethal military supplies (such as cameras and camouflage clothing) had the biggest deterrent effect on crime, followed by vehicles, and that "weapons do not appear to work as a deterrence tool" since they had by far the lowest effect on decreasing crime rates.
The second study, described as the "first local level empirical analysis of the causal effects of providing military equipment to police," claims that military equipment provided through the 1033 program has "generally positive effects: reduced assaults on officers, increased drug arrests, and no increases in offender deaths."
Still, Matthew Harris, a University of Tennessee economics professor and the author of the second study, cautioned against using the study as a blanket justification of militarizing police forces. As Harris told factcheck.org, "it is entirely possible that in certain jurisdictions these armaments may or may not be necessary, have not increased the efficacy of drug interdiction, or have led directly to increased violence by police against civilians."
"In other words, our findings do not necessarily mean that saturating our local law enforcement agencies with military hardware is good policy," Harris added.
In his justification of lifting the ban, Sessions also ignored another recent study published in Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, which found that providing police with military surveillance equipment actually led to an increase in assaults against cops. Other research has found that arming cops with more military equipment results in more civilian deaths, and a recent FBI survey of police departments also found that patrol rifles carried by police officers "contribute to a militarized appearance unacceptable for much of the public."
In general, however, research on the effects of militarizing America's local police forces is wanting. At the same time, the militarization of America's police departments continues to be justified by appeals to an idea that was canonized in the aftermath of a $20,000 heist in a small town in California—that if only cops had more firepower, both they and the citizens they are duty-bound to protect would somehow be safer.
The sentiment was succinctly summed up by Rolf Parkes, one of the responding officers to the Norco robbery, when he said "There would have been a lot more dead cops on that road if not for that weapon." This may very well be true in some cases. But until there is better data on which kinds of equipment are actually saving officers' lives and deterring crime, any blanket call for increased firepower at local law enforcement agencies seems difficult to justify.
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