James “Jim” Flanagan: The Man Behind the Badge and Camera

James Flanagan portrait, undated. Rio Grande Historical Collections, James Flanagan collection (Ms0259) image no. 02590210

The Archives and Special Collections (ASC) is a treasure trove for photography enthusiasts. It has many fascinating photograph collections, but one that recently caught my attention was the James “Jim” Flanagan photograph collection. I have been working with the Flanagan collection for an upcoming virtual presentation and I never imagined there would be such a wide range of photographic subjects in the collection. Flanagan photographed various social and cultural events around the Las Cruces area. In the collection, you can find images of local sporting events, parades, community events, desert scenes, Flanagan family photos, agriculture, and the bulk consisting of police photography.

Agricultural photograph found in Flanagan collection that includes a group of men with a cotton bale to be auctioned, undated. James Flanagan collection (Ms0259) image no. 02590007.

The man behind the camera was James “Jim” Flanagan, born August 20, 1912, in Junction City, Kansas. Flanagan moved to Las Cruces in 1937 and the same year, he joined the New Mexico National Guard. A year later, he married Amelia Moya. The couple remained in Las Cruces, where they had four children. To add to his list of accomplishments, Jim served in the 45th Infantry Division as a warrant officer during WWII. During his military service, Jim miraculously survived combat injuries during an incident in which the rest of his squad was killed. Flanagan was later awarded the Bronze Star and several Purple Hearts with two additional commendations. In 1946, Flanagan was discharged from the military. Back in Las Cruces with his family, he owned and operated the Magnolia Gas Station.

In 1949, Flanagan began his career in law enforcement in Doña Ana County, where he served as a deputy in the Sheriff’s Department from 1949-1960. During his time with the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office, he was a huge advocate for the practice of police photography. During his time in law enforcement, he was considered a qualified expert on photography and firearms by the district and federal courts.

James with a camera, undated. Rio Grande Historical Collections, James Flanagan collection (Ms0259) image no. 02591583-059

During the time he was a deputy, he created a photographic lab to aid in preserving crime scene evidence, an emerging method to assist in departmental investigations. Flanagan’s advocacy for the use of police photography led him to write a manuscript titled “Police Photography.” In the manuscript, Flanagan argued the importance for all law enforcement agencies, regardless of size, to have a photographer to aid and protect the department. In the article, he explains the different types of equipment needed to start up such an effort and what benefit it could offer in terms of capturing essential evidence within a crime scene. Flanagan’s article closes by making an interesting comparison, “you will find that photography in the department has something in common with police radio – after you have properly used it, you wouldn’t want to operate without it.” Comparing photography to the use of the police radio demonstrates how essential Flanagan thought photography was to police work.

Photography equipment, undated. Rio Grande Historical Collections, James Flanagan collection (Ms0259) image no. 02591587-003

To complement the manuscript, there is a massive quantity of police photography found in the collection. He captured tens of thousands of black and white images of various crime and accident scenes in southern New Mexico. He photographed vehicle and industrial accidents, burglaries, murders, suicides, crime victims, criminal suspects, and other police-related subjects. Flanagan’s black and white photographs, captured with the exquisite detail of 4×5-inch film, is powerful, evocative, brutal, and beautiful. The images within the Flanagan collection vividly communicate the importance of police photography to a southern New Mexico law enforcement agency. They also document an aspect of the region’s history and culture seldom witnessed by the wider population.

Jim Flanagan was a remarkable individual; he had an eye for the camera and it aided him while he was involved in law enforcement. To those interested in browsing through the Flanagan photographs, about 1,500 of them are accessible via the ASC photographic collections database.

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