What’s in a Picture: 1938 LAPD Shootout

As many of you are familiar with my current book, Guardians of Angels: A History of the Los Angeles Police Department, one can see my historical interest in vintage photographs. For me, they all have a story to tell. As I am currently doing research for my next book, The Protectors: A Photographic History of Local Law Enforcement in the United States, I discovered an amazing photograph of an LAPD shooting in progress captured by photographer Scott Harrison of the Los Angeles Times in 1938. Photographs such as these are extremely rare during this period in law enforcement history.

This amazing image captures a moment in the midst of a standoff between Los Angeles Police and a barricaded suspect, George Farley.

This amazing image captures a moment in the midst of a standoff between Los Angeles Police and a barricaded suspect, George Farley.

The stand-off that is depicted so distinctly in the photograph began on a clear sunny winter day, Thursday, February 17, 1938, when Marshals T. Dwight Crittenden and Leon W. Romer, both 60, were at George Farley’s residence at 1516 E. 22rd Street to serve an eviction order for $67.50 for back rent. Farley, a 55-year-old day laborer, knew they were coming, as just the prior day he received a 24-hour notice to vacate the small-framed residence. But Farley had no plans to voluntarily leave his rented home—and armed with a high-powered rifle, he lay in wait. His wife, sensing trouble, fled the scene.

As the two unsuspecting marshals arrived, there was no indication that Farley was at home. Both men entered the house and started to pack up his effects. At the same time, an 18-year-old witness was standing across the street with his father, who had traveled to the location to watch his friends evict Farley. Then, accordingly to the teenager: “Suddenly there was a shot, and Mr. Romer came staggering down the steps. He sort of twisted and fell, sprawling on the lawn. He lay very still.” Marshal Romer had been shot through the chest and died almost instantly as he collapsed on the front lawn. In the photograph, he can be seen near the walkway in front of the home.

Seeing his partner violently shot, Marshal Crittenden ran from the residence, making it as far as the middle of the street before Farley shot him through the head. His body lay in the street during the subsequent events as depicted in the photograph. Calls quickly poured into communications division. Meanwhile, Farley calmly took a seat in a room near the front door with his rifle across his lap. He waited patiently for the reinforcements he knew were coming—he wasn’t leaving.

Answering the shots-fired radio call were Detective Lieutenants Robert Underwood and Elliott (no first name listed), who were the first to arrive at the location. As Underwood took cover behind the ambulance directly across the street from the house, he yelled for the suspect to come out and surrender. No sooner was the command given than Farley rushed to the front porch and yelled: “Here I is. Come an’ get me,” and fired at the officers, who promptly returned fire, hitting the suspect through his thigh as he was ducking back into the house.

As reinforcments arrived from Newton Street Station, Farley barricaded himself in the house. As Farley fired back, officers took up position around the house, hiding behind trees, cars and the wall of a nearby residence. For the next hour, officers fired volley after volley into the tiny home, blowing out windows and splintering the thin walls. Tear gas was called in and fired into the residence, as can be seen clearly in the photograph.

When the gunfire ceased, several officers broke into the house to find Farley slumped on his face in a rear room, shot five times in his thighs, arm and chest. Farley survived his wounds and was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in San Quentin for two counts of manslaughter. (I was unable to ascertain what happened to Farley after being sentenced.) Through this one frame of film, we get a peek back at 1938 LAPD and the sad circumstances of that bloody Thursday. Lest we never forget the sacrifices of Marshals T. Dwight Crittenden and Leon W. Romer.