Norco 80: The robbery that changed US policing

LAist Studios & Futuro Studios

Norco 80 is a demanding podcast. It’s not the kind to enjoy passively as you flit about doing household chores, or one to play as background while the first coffee of the day brews. It needs the full attention of its listeners. If the dog barks, or the Amazon delivery driver arrives, or you lose concentration for some other reason, you will find yourself skipping back and re-listening lest you miss the significance of the next 20 minutes.

There’s just too much detail, or too little filtering, depending on how you look at it. It forgets that it is borrowing its audience’s time and its job is to persuade. A good podcast should earn our close attention without expecting it.

Right from the first swashbuckling episode that places us right at the scene of the dramatic robbery of Norco’s Security Pacific Bank, it feels almost like Antonia Cereijido is describing the most climatic scene from an action movie over the phone. Don’t blink or sneeze or you’ll be lost as new characters are thrown at the velocity of the bullets that reined down on police that day in May 1980.

The perpetual need to “rewind” doesn’t end there. Old recordings are sometimes so tinny in quality that you’re forced to strain just to overcome the awful diction and salvage from the wreckage a few words or sentences that indicate what may have been said.

So, in a practical sense, Norco 80 is not a pleasure to listen to.

But the story itself is a curious one. What begins as the retelling of one of the most violent bank robberies in American history, evolves into an examination of what it is to prepare for danger. It cautions that in overestimating environmental risk we can actually land up doing much more harm that good.

How so?

Well, the attackers that day in Norco were led by George Smith, a survivalist obsessed with prophecies of armageddon. Underground tunnels offering secret shelter weaved below his beloved home and, with his cannabis business failing, the heist was borne as a financial solution intended to stave off eviction.

In other words, the robbery was considered less risky than leaving this preppers paradise and facing the end of the world with the rest of us.

But the robbers went in heavy-handed that day with homemade bombs and automatic weapons. The battle with the local Norco police was brutal and resulted in casualties on both sides. In the aftermath, members of the force demanded bigger and better weapons to defend themselves should a similar exchange occur. And, so the story goes, this sparked a chain reaction that changed the relationship between the police and the community forever.

Indeed, the Norco bank robbery was subsequently reimagined as a police training video and widely disseminated. It was used to remind officers of the kinds of dangers they can face at any moment. To reinforce the need for heavily armed police units. Cereijido notes that “the video is a message that society could collapse if police didn’t arm themselves for the worst.”

There are some nice echoes here of the survivalist message, of course. George Smith, who survived the attack and remains in prison, is similarly keen to emphasize that his co-conspirators only brought ammunition with them “in case it went against us.”

Our host argues we should conclude that this paranoia-driven over-zealousness has reverberated, causing bigger problems in the long run.

It’s an interesting and convincing take. Those that see danger everywhere have a tendency to be too reactive and overly punishing. This how we found ourselves trapped in a cycle of disproportionate police brutality, Cereijido argues. Tales like that of the Norco shootout feed police fears at training, making them scared and jumpy on the job, much like the survivalist bank robbers they tackled on that fateful day.

The parallels between policing and prepping aren’t neat, however. Smith may claim to have gone to the bank heavily armed “just in case”, but his previous wives recall that he was a cruel and aggressive man. One insists that he confessed to her that he wanted to kill someone to see what it felt like. Another says he kicked her in the stomach while she was pregnant. Witnesses say that Smith and his accomplices began shooting as soon as the cops arrived on scene.

Perhaps Norco 80 wants to use police institutional racism as an equivalent streak of cruelty. One that, like Smith’s, becomes more toxic when heavily armed. In an early episode, Deputy Sheriff Andrew Delgado-Monti recalls the racial jibes and discriminatory behavior he endured at Norco police. He even believes he was deliberately left to die during the siege.

Marooned from the rest of the narrative, this testimony is apparently trying to do two things: remind us that George Smith and a number of his gang (including the two who died) were from minority backgrounds, and draw a direct line from the brutal shootout at Norco right through to the more recent and more overtly racialized killings of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor.

It feels like a heavy lift, however, and Delgado-Monti’s story is never fully absorbed into or explained in terms of the broader narrative. It’s another example of this podcast asking listeners to strain, to do too much, to make connections that aren’t clearly signposted.

There is much to admire here though. The analysis is profound and Norco 80 is the kind of podcast that keeps the listener thinking long after the final episode concludes. It’s central topic deserves attention, and for the most part Cereijido is a solid, if low key, guide. Still, Norco 80 constantly risks losing its audience along the way.

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