Two police officers were shot and killed in the Southern California desert town of Palm Springs on Saturday after they were called to a family dispute and came under fire as they arrived on the scene, local police said.

A third officer was wounded in the afternoon shooting, Police Chief Bryan Reyes said at a news conference. Police closed off nearby blocks as they searched for a suspect on Saturday evening.

The officers who were killed were identified as Jose Vega, a 35-year veteran who was due to retire in December, and 27-year-old Lesley Zerebny, who had been an officer for about a year and a half and was the mother of a four-month-old baby.

"I am awake in a nightmare right now," Reyes told reporters.

One witness said the suspect's father told her his son expressed a desire to kill police just moments before the shooting, The Desert Sun newspaper reported.

"He came over and asked for help," Frances Serrano said of the father, who added that his son had mental issues, according to the newspaper.

Dozens of police rushed to the scene of the shooting, which unfolded in a residential neighborhood of Palm Springs, a normally placid resort community about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

Police in tactical gear surrounded the home, with an armored assault vehicle stationed in front of the house with an officer perched in a turret. It was possible the suspect remained in the house or had escaped the area, Reyes said.

Officers went to the home after a female caller said her son was causing a disturbance, Reyes said. The officers were outside trying to negotiate with the suspect when shooting began.

"It was a simple family disturbance, and he elected to open fire on a few of the guardians of this city," Reyes said.

The wounded officer was alert and "doing well," Reyes added.

A neighbor, Juan Graciano, 67, said he heard angry shouting between a father and son who live at the residence before the father emerged from the home, crossed the street and asked another neighbor to call for help.

Graciano said the other neighbor apparently called police, who came under fire as they arrived at the home, and that some police returned fire. He said he saw one female officer who appeared to be wounded lying on the ground as fellow officers tried to resuscitate her.