As a photographic historian, I am naturally drawn to old photographs. I marvel how a moment in time is frozen for eternity allowing later generations a peek back into a split second of history. When I first saw the portrait taken by a newspaper photographer of five Los Angeles police officers posing in a hospital, I was captivated and had to know: Why this picture?
My first observations were the differing facial expressions and how the officers are affectionately touching one another, like they are all part of the same family—brothers. It suggests what any LAPD cop comes to experience—that you are all brothers and sisters—which translates that you will do whatever humanely possible to ensure the safety for your partner as you all share that same bond of danger that penetrates each day you pin on your badge and take to the streets. So I wonder, why this photo, this moment in time? I would come to learn that the story begins and ends with the man sitting on the right, a sling tied around his shoulder, his uniform in disarray, as he gazes into the lens of the camera—Motorcycle Officer Oscar Bayer.
A veteran of the Great World War, Bayer understood combat, having been wounded by an exploding bomb. He was a man who thrived by pushing the envelope. At the age of 23, Bayer joined the LAPD and two years later was in motors. The likable Bayer made headlines several times, including after a shooting with a burglary suspect he was attempting to take into custody. But it was the summer of 1925 that a young Bayer nearly lost his life while in pursuit of bank robbers in which one suspect and an LAPD police officer were killed. Four others were wounded after several hundred bullets were fired. The LA Times called it the “city’s most spectacular gun battle” ever.It was 10 a.m. on Saturday, August 22, 1925, when four hardcore criminals led by an ex-con bank hold-up man from Chicago, robbed the Hellman Bank in downtown Los Angeles at Ninth and Santa Fe Avenue. The suspects, all heavily armed with shotguns, revolvers and semi-automatic pistols entered the bank and ordered everyone to the floor before jumping on the counters and riffling through all the tellers’ drawers, taking more than $19,000.
While the robbery was occurring, a few blocks away, Motorcycle Officer Bayer was at Eighth and Santa Fe Avenue when his attention was suddenly drawn to a racing vehicle being chased by another car. As the two autos roared by, Bayer heard the driver from the second car scream, “Hold-up—stop them.” In the next few moments, Officer Oscar Bayer would display heroism seldom repeated in the annals of LAPD history.Gunning his motorcycle, Bayer was immediately in pursuit. At this time there were no radios, no help on the way—only phone calls from panicked citizens as the pursuit dangerously tore through downtown. As Bayer pursued the suspects, two of the robbers smashed out the rear window of their stolen car and immediately opened fire on Bayer, who heard the bullets as they whizzed by his head. Unfazed, he sped-up after the gangsters—“I was mad clean through.…I wanted those birds.” The suspects were struggling to lose the LAPD motor officer while making several sharp turns. They turned north on Alameda to Seventh Street heading west to Central. At the intersection of
Alameda and Seventh, Traffic Officer Wylie E. Smith was just taking over traffic duties from Officer George P. Moore when they heard the gunfire and saw Bayer in pursuit. The bank robbers had to slow down due to traffic and, as consequence, Smith and Moore opened fire at the occupants of the vehicle. Seeing this, the suspects directed their fire on the two exposed traffic officers. Officer Moore had his hat shot off just as Officer Smith was shot in the chest. Smith would die from his wound the next day.
As the suspect’s vehicle continued, other LAPD traffic officers became involved. Traffic Officer Jack A. Stambler observing the trouble Bayer was in, quickly commandeered a small auto and ordered the disbelieving driver to follow the pursuit. Standing on the running board, Stambler joined in the gun battle firing at the fleeing suspects. But Stambler soon came to realize, the car he seized was no match for the fast touring car of the bank robbers. So he ordered the civilian driver to stop and springing from the auto, Stambler spotted a faster car and once again took a position on the running board of the frightened driver who was ordered to join the pursuit.
Traffic Officer Bertrand M. Steventon noticing Officer Stambler commandeer another car took over the small vehicle and once again the driver was ordered to pursue the bandits. As the three officers thundered through the streets, bullets were flying. People on the streets were diving for cover, store windows were being shot out, other cars were being struck, but the determined LAPD officers would not give up.The unwavering Bayer, leading the chase, would not be deterred. As he pursed the suspects down Seventh Street, a bullet struck him in his right breast nearly knocking him from his motor. Fortunately, much of the impact was stopped by his traffic citation book. Dazed, Bayer shook his head to keep conscious. In quick succession Bayer was again struck by a fuselage of bullets, one going through his sleeve and another round hit just below his hip. He would later comment just how much the wounds “stung.” Bayer did not dwell on his injuries, he just became more enraged. With his gun empty, Bayer did the unbelievable. While still receiving fire he somehow managed to reload his revolver while speeding after the criminals. Squealing to a halt at Seventh and San Pedro due to traffic, two of the bank robbers jumped from the touring car, while two others ran from the scene. Traffic Officer Claude R. Weaver hearing
the deafening gun fire at his intersection, opened fire on the suspects. Meanwhile, Motor Officer Bayer observed that each suspect was armed with guns in each hand as they were determined to rid themselves of this troublesome motor cop. With bullets flying, Bayer took careful aim and killed the leader of the gang. With only one bullet left in his gun, Bayer took cover behind another vehicle and fired at the second suspect striking him in the arm. Bayer’s gun was empty but the suspect was preparing to fire again.Taking a calculated risk, Bayer pointed his empty revolver at the wounded suspect and yelled, “If you don’t surrender, I will kill you.” The ruthless suspect looking into the determined face of a man who refused to quit, his uniform covered in blood, gave up and surrendered.A block away Officer Steventon was in foot pursuit of one of the two suspects who had fled the scene as their getaway car was stuck in traffic. As Steventon ran after him, the fleeing suspect turned and fired several rounds at Steventon, who returned fire until he ran out of ammo. The suspect managed to get away after he carjacked a vehicle at gunpoint. Sometime later both suspects were apprehended in different parts of the country.
Motor Officer Bayer would quickly recover from his wounds and eventually was promoted to Detective-Lieutenant. Officer’s Oscar Bayer and Wylie Smith were awarded the Medal of Valor for their involvement in the Hillman Bank robbery incident. Sadly, in his eighth year on the department, Oscar Bayer was killed off-duty, piloting a civilian aircraft, as he was preparing himself to become part of the rumored LAPD aero-bureau. He left behind a wife and four young children.
So it was from a single photograph, taken just after the shooting, that this story was discovered chronicling the type of individuals who wore the badge of a Los Angeles Police Officer during the 1920s. Today, their brother and sister officers are faced with new challenges and yes, some of the old ones. But one can take comfort knowing the sacrifices that were suffered in Bayer’s era help shape the officers of today and make LAPD a leader in law enforcement across the Nation. As this chronicle attests, the men and women of LAPD are all brothers and sisters—insuperable in protecting one another and the citizens of Los Angeles.