At a time when police action in the Midwest is raising concerns about the militarization of local law enforcement agencies, police in South Los Angeles are crediting some of that equipment for saving lives during a dramatic run-and-gun pursuit before daybreak Monday.
For more than three hours, police across South L.A. were engaged in a frantic search near 37th Street and Grand Avenue after two men who police tried to stop about 2:20 a.m. in a 2001 Chevrolet Tahoe sped off and opened fire on pursuing officers.
The chase ended hours later, when one of the men in the car opened fire with a "high-powered rifle" at an approaching SWAT team protected by a BearCat armored vehicle. One officer was shot in the calf during the exchange and was rushed to surgery, and the shooter was killed.
"The BearCat played a large role in the survival of his life," said LAPD Officer Wendy Reyes of the wounded SWAT officer. "We don't know what the outcome could've been. He could've been killed."
The gunman's alleged accomplice was taken into custody after SWAT officers lobbed tear gas canisters and a flash grenade into the dumpster he was hiding in.
The armored vehicle used by the SWAT team was one of two the department purchased for $150,000 in 2003. Such vehicles are used in active shooting situations -- such as the Stockton bank robbery and shootout last month that left three people dead. The vehicle shielded approaching officers who closed in on the suspect.
The South L.A. gun battle occurred amid a national debate over the arming of police with military-style weaponry. Police in Ferguson, Mo., have been criticized for the amount and scale of the military-style equipment displayed in the first days of unrest after the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed, black 18-year-old man by a white officer.
In Los Angeles, LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith said the public were lucky that Monday's shooting broke out in an industrial section of the city at a time when local businesses were closed.
The incident ended at Figueroa Street and Florence Avenue, about three miles north of where it began, and left a trail of bullet fragments and shell casings. Officials said there were three crime scenes to canvass, one of which required closing all but the FasTrak lanes on the northbound 110 freeway near downtown L.A. through morning rush hour and into the afternoon.
"It's extraordinarily early in the investigation," Smith said.
What police could say definitively is that officers were shot at three times – once near the Vernon Avenue exit on the 110 freeway where the vehicle briefly stopped, once at 37th and Hill streets where the suspects crashed and ran away, and once on Grand Avenue, when the officer was wounded and one of the men in the Tahoe was killed.
Police said they initially tried to stop the vehicle for reckless driving. The identity of the man taken into custody and the slain gunman had not been made public as of early Monday afternoon.