Los Angeles Police Department in the Late 1920s

1920s Police 

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) established in 1869 is currently one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the United States. The department’s motto is “to protect and to serve”. Over the years the department has been involved in a number of controversial situations involving racial hostility and police corruption. In the early part of the 20th century the town’s growing population of 100,000 saw an increase in police officers to 200. The police force in the late 1920s was understood to be corrupt and incompetent body.

Most of the officers were controlled by mobsters and rich influential people who bribed both the police and politicians and therefore had an influence on government. These mobsters and other influential people bribed both the police and politicians thereby controlling city activities. Very few policemen remained neutral and uninfluenced by them. There were citizen complaints of police incompetence because they solved very few of the cases bought in by citizens and the occurrence numerous corruption scandals in the department.

On 10th on March 1928, Walter Collins aged 9, son to Christine Collins disappeared from their home in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles California, the case was reported to the police for investigation. The case latter became popularly known as the changeling case, which latter became linked to another case now commonly known as the Wineville chicken coop murders. Initially both the police and Christine Collins believed that the boy had been abducted by enemies of her husband who was serving time in Folsom prison for eight robberies.

After a months search the police came across a boy claiming to be Walter Collins. The officers investigating the case scheduled to return the boy to his mother. A public reunion of the two was organised by the police in the hope that this would quell the negative publicity they received for their inability to solve cases help the public overlook the corruption scandals that had been alleged to occur in the department. On meeting the boy Christine Collins informed the police that she did not think that the boy was her son.

The police pressured her to take the boy, urging that she did not recognise her son because of the trauma she had suffered over the months and that the lads’ features had changed probably because of starvation. They insisted for her to “try him out” for a couple of weeks. After three weeks Christine Collins returned to the police sure that the returned boy was not her son. She came armoured with evidence that included petitions from teachers and dental records showing that the boy they had delivered to her was not Walter Collins, her son.

As a result, she was accused of neglect and attempting to mislead a police investigation. Captain J. J. Jones afraid that Christine’s allegations would embarrass the LAPD and fuel the negative publicity that they were already facing, committed her to an insane asylum. During this era the police saw itself as an authoritative organisation that could not make mistakes, they used their influence to intimidate and silence Mrs Collins because of her persistence on the case. The LAPD went to great lengths to protect its reputation but at the same time destroyed it.

The anxiety of police hierarchy was a probable reason why the force ignored the reality that they had returned the wrong boy and instead chose to accuse Christine Collins of irresponsibility. The attitude of the police department especially Captain Jones and then Chief of Police James E. Davis, was that of extreme arrogance. They discredited Christine’s efforts to make her case accusing her of neglecting her son, being a liar and hysterical. Christine Collins was incarcerated under code 12 which at that time allowed the police to lock up anyone they deemed insane or uncooperative.

The police wanted the case to remain closed seeing that reopening of the case would need more funds (which were limited) and this was as a waste of both money and their time. From the police point of view they chose to believe the runaway who claimed to be Walter and ignore the Christine Collins’ claims. Pastor Gustav Briegleb of the Presbyterian Church had daily broadcasts that discussed the corruption scandals that went on in the police department. He approached Christine Collins with the suggestion that letting in the press on the case would help further it.

Both Christine and the pastor being of the same mind that the police department was corrupt and incompetent joined efforts and informed the cases’ details to the press, a move that would pressure the police to work on the case. The story was published in many news papers, with The Times running headlines like “New Kidnapping Clew In Hunt for Missing Collins Boy”. Finally when the story gained national attention the police felt compelled to solve it. Latter the runaway, 12-year-old Arthur Hutchins Jr. admitted that he was not Walter Collins.

Arthur Hutchins Jr. was originally form Iowa and he had ran away from home to get as far away as possible from his step mother. His motive was also to travel to Hollywood to meet his favourite actor Tom Mix and thought he could impersonate Walter Collins since it was an opportunity to get to California. Ten days after his confession, Christine Collins was released from the mental asylum. Mounting pressure from the public and anxiety over police hierarchy became a key motivator for officers to speedily solve Walter Collins disappearance.

Detective Lester Ybarra who had been assigned to arrest and deport illegal Canadian immigrant at a ranch in Wineville captured a boy, Sanford Clark, who disclosed the horrific crimes committed by his mother and uncle Sarah and Gordon Northcott. Gordon Northcott had taken his nephew Clark, from his home in Saskatchewan Canada with his mother’s permission but father’s reluctance, to a ranch in California where he had repeatedly beaten and sexually harmed the boy until August of 1928.

Whilst in police custody Stanford Clark revealed that he was forced to help Northcott and his mother Sarah in killing some of the children after his uncle had abducted and sexually abused them. This opened up an investigation that became known as the Wineville chicken coop murders. At the Wineville ranch, police did not find any children bodies because they had been dumped in the desert, they only found body parts and personal effects that belonged to the missing children. They also found evidence of weapons that were used to commit the murders e. g. blood stained axes.

The Northcotts ran off to Canada to avoid prosecution but were sent back to the United States to face charges. Both Sarah and Gordon confessed to the murders of the children including that of Walter Collins. Sarah Northcott confessed to the murder of Walter Collins but latter retracted her statement. Gordon Northcott who had confessed to killing five boys also retracted his statement regarding the murder of Walter Collins. Gordon Northcott was convicted of 3 murders that of Lewis Winslow aged 12, Nelson Winslow aged 10 and an unidentified Mexican boy, but after his conviction he confessed to up to twenty murders, a claim he latter denied.

Gordon Northcott was executed by hanging in 1930 and Sarah Louise Northcott was convicted for the murder of Walter Collins and served almost 12 years in prison. After her release from the mental asylum Christine Collins sued the City and police department twice winning the second time. She sued the police department for dereliction of duty whilst handling her missing sons’ case. Captain J. J. Jones was ordered to pay her 10,800 dollars in damages but he never did.

Jones’ and the LAPDs’ gravest law enforcement error was denying their accountability in the case even when the truth came out. This sense of impunity and arrogance was the common nature of the police department during that time. As a consequence of the changeling case the, City Council recommended that Captain J. J. Jones and the Chief of Police James E. Davis leave their posts but they were both reinstated. Because of the lawsuit against the city, the California State Legislature made it illegal for cops to commit someone to a mental facility without a warrant.

The investigation of the changeling case carried out by the police portrayed the police department to be a greedy, weak, incompetent, egotistical and negligent. This is evident by their ignorance of evidence (the dental records and petitions from teachers) provided to them, their refusal to accept accountability for their mistakes and their lack of interest to serve the citizens, the corruption scandals that were linked to the department and unreasonably harsh treatment (incarceration) of Christine Collins.

Had the police department acknowledge the evidence presented to them, the case could have been solved faster and the departments reputation would not have suffered all the increased negativity from the case. They instead opted to use their government power to avoid exposure of on going scandals, discredit and intimidate innocent civilians. Due to the bad reputation Wineville got from the chicken coop murders, the residents changed the name of the town to Mari Loma in 1930.

The abuse of authority as seen in the changeling case serves as a lesson in free activism that seeks to question unrestrained authority by powerful or influential groups. The popularity of the case has recently increased after it was produced into a movie called “The Changeling” by Clint Eastwood. Hopefully society shall learn to stand up against unrepressed authority that threatens to misuse its powers for the detriment of society.


  • NPR, inc. (January 4 1980) Behind ‘changeling’ a Tale Too Strange for Fiction. Retrieved May 11, 2010, from http://www. npr. org/templates/story/story. php? storyId=95935010