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.

1911 LAPD: A Leader in Technology … Well, Sort Of

In 1911, the Los Angeles Times warned “Lawbreakers Beware” as the Los Angeles Police Department was at again. You see, LAPD loves technology—whatever it takes to get one-up on the bad guys. Seemingly always outnumbered, the department of 1911 had to be inventive; so as they would throughout their history, its leaders instinctively turned to technology.

An LAPD officer trying out the "Power Skates."

An LAPD officer trying out the “Power Skates.”

With the benefit of cutting-edge devices, the modern LAPD patrolled the entire city in the early 20th century using automobiles and motorcycles, leaving the old, dependable foot beat cop in the dust. The new machinery only seemed to emphasize the slowness of patrolmen. But the street-smart cop was not about to fade away like his four-legged friends.

So when a local citizen came to then Chief Charles Sebastian (1911-1915) with an invention to literally propel the foot beat cop as fast as those in the new automobile, the chief quickly ordered a field trial of what Mr. Herbert Chamberlin termed his “Power Skates.” According to his design, these specially created skates would allow properly equipped foot beat officers to “speed past” their motorized colleagues. There were two types of these skates: One had two wheels and was a “high-speed” design that would allow the cop to reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour; the other had four wheels for each skate and was for regular, slower foot beat duty. The skates were propelled by the weight of the officer stepping forward as if walking; a worm gear “commuting the vertical to circular motion” drove the officer forward—or so it was promised.

As history would have it, the “Power Skates” were not approved, possibly saving hundreds of days of lost time from injuries—as the one big drawback of the design was clear: no brakes!

What’s In a Picture: Historical Research Using Vintage Photographs

I love old photographs. I relish the stories that emanate from every pixel. It’s a moment in time that can never be duplicated. It allows the viewer to travel back to that instant and share with the people pictured whatever was occurring at that particular second in time. Fortunately for historians, LAPD was very photogenic. Taken by the press or a local photographer and, later, the department’s own photographers, thousands of images record the history of the Los Angeles Police Department from the Wild West era through to today’s digital age.

Photographs contain a treasure-trove of information just waiting to be discovered and used effectively in historical research. I believe these images are underused as a primary historical research tool—yet it’s a resource I enjoyed taking full advantage of through a variety of techniques. In compiling Guardians of Angels: A History of the Los Angeles Police Department, I used historical images to help illustrate the story of the department. As I wrote, I would always strive to locate the precise photograph to support the text. Once discovered, the real work began.

Most photographs from the earlier era of the department have no identifying inscriptions, such as handwritten captions identifying the occasion and the people in the shot. But with a little research, the details captured in the photograph can lead to very precise dating. LAPD has worn six badges since its formation in 1869. Since the time span for each badge is readily available, date ranges can be narrowed down simply by examining the particular badge being worn as well as by the type of uniform. Once I have that information I can look up who was chief of police during that span and narrow it down further by examining the image to see which chief might be pictured. Most made sure to be included in the photograph. By using today’s digital enlargement, fine details barely discernible in the original image can now be brought to life. It might be a close-up of weapons used, the uniform or an individual. Finally, if the image in question is vintage (not a copy), the researcher can date the photograph by the format and type of photograph taken further closing in on the year of the image.

Case in point. In researching for Guardians of Angels, I discovered a very old, unassuming vintage photograph showing two men in suits (above). The image was a carte-de-visite (also known as a CDV), which was a common style of photography from the 1860s to the early 1870s. This fact allowed narrowing down the date of the image. Further research of an old newspaper article accompanying the photo identified one of the individuals pictured as William “Billy” Sands.

sands earlyWilliam Sands, on the right, wearing the earliest known uniform of the Los Angeles Police Department, circa 1870.

In one of the oldest police annual reports of the LAPD, in October 1883, 16 officers were listed as employed, one of whom was: “William Sands, age 57, entered service February, 1870.” Subsequent investigation led to a glimpse into the life of Billy Sands, who posed for this photograph more than 140 years ago. Sands was born in Tennessee in 1826 and grew up in Arkansas. With the discovery of gold in California, the 23-year-old headed west. Briefly involved with the Civil War in 1861, Sands eventually settled in Los Angeles and became one of the earliest known city firemen.

Eight years later in 1869, LAPD hired its first six full-time paid officers. A few months later, Sands was hired as a replacement officer for one of the original six officers. Because LAPD did not adopt an official police uniform until several years later, the photograph of Sands standing with an unidentified individual (almost certainly another officer) is vital to the history of the department. It appears that the clothes worn by these two men are the earliest known example of what the LAPD uniforms resembled, before the official formal uniform was adopted in 1876.

The fact that both men are very similarly dressed, including their hats, jackets and pants, has to be more than a coincidence. Additionally, while most histories of the LAPD credit Chief William Warren with development of the sunburst-designed badge in 1869, I would argue that the first badge was not issued until 1877, under Chief of Police Jacob Gerkens. If these officers took the time to have their photograph taken in uniform, they most definitely would have displayed a metal badge on their lapels.

Officer Billy Sands remained on active duty until his death on November 9, 1885, at the age of 59. At this time, he was the most senior officer in the young department. The photograph, hidden from sight and deliberation for years, represent the founding officers’ uniform of the 1870 LAPD.

Over the next few months, I want to share just “What’s in a Picture” and several of the photographs I discovered in writing Guardians of Angels. Each one makes for interesting viewing, reading and historical research. Please comment on my blog and share if you have any special interest you would like to see in this column.