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Pioneer Cop: A Half Century Ahead of his Time
By Jim Fisher

There is something a good patrolman puts into his work that is not found in the books of rules nor taught by police instructors.

- August Vollmer (1933)

In 1905, the citizens of Berkeley, California, banded together to rid themselves of the prostitutes, gambling houses, and opium dens operating openly in their town. The man they elected to do the job was a 29-year-old uneducated mail carrier who promised to clean things up.

Reform candidate August Vollmer kept his campaign promises and went from town marshall to president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in a span of 16 years. By then he was already a respected police administrator and a recognized pioneer in the fields of police training, police patrols, penology, juvenile delinquency, scientific lie detection, fingerprinting, and criminal statistics.

Decades ahead of his time in such areas as crime records, patrol force distribution, and police communications, Vollmer hammered out a theory of police professionalism that was adopted by J. Edgar Hoover when he took control of the FBI in 1924.

“An effort ought to be made to obtain men who are capable, honest, active in mind and body, industrious, cool headed, well educated, experienced in dealing with people, able to solve difficult problems quickly, and prompt to act on decisions formed on the basis of practical common sense and sound judgment,” Vollmer said.

The square-jawed, stern-looking Vollmer was known for his honesty, hardworking devotion to duty and his courage. During the course of his police career, he was shot at, knifed, and bludgeoned. Only once did he find it necessary to shoot a man to death.

A shrewd and compassionate leader, Vollmer became a master at using the press to maintain public support. Because he always kept his word, reporters trusted him, and he won the respect of his men and fellow police administrators. The feeling was mutual.

“To win the support of subordinates, police executives must know police business and must have had long experience in the various branches of service; otherwise he is doomed to failure,” Vollmer said.

Although Vollmer's life centered on the serious business of law enforcement, he possessed a wry, mischievous sense of humor and was not above pulling his share of practical jokes; he loved to sing, play the guitar, and swap stories. His office was open to youngsters, who came around for hair-raising crime stories and candy.

Vollmer always spoke up for what he believed in, even when his opinions cut across the grain of popular thought. His outspoken comments ran a gamut of touchy subjects and still seem current:

  • On police support: “The policeman is denounced by the public, criticized by preachers, ridiculed in the movies, berated by the newspapers and unsupported by prosecuting officers and judges.”
  • On crime prevention: “Merely arresting the offender and sending him to jail is like pouring water into a sieve.”
  • On laws: “Laws, as a rule, are hastily read, poorly digested and occasionally misinterpreted, even by the judiciary.”

Though most of his colleagues were for it, Vollmer did not believe in capital punishment. He was skeptical of J. Edgar Hoover's efforts to rid America of the “Red Menace” in the late 1940's and spoke out against the KKK at the peak of its power. He formed a committee to seek humane treatment for the Japanese interred in prison camps after Pearl Harbor.

Vollmer was one of the few turn-of-the-century police chiefs to prohibit the “third degree.” He visited his jail every morning to talk with prisoners and to view their treatment firsthand. He abhorred prisoner brutality and required his men, when questioning suspects, to treat them with kindness and respect – he believed that offenders were more likely to confess when treated this way.

In 1919, he placed an ad in the school newspaper at the University of California seeking student applicants for jobs as police officers. Hundreds of full-time college students applied for the jobs. Vollmer's “college cops” included Walter Gorden, the department's first black officer; John Larson, future inventor of the polygraph; and V.A. Leonard, who became a well-known writer and criminal justice educator.

An astounding number of Vollmer's protégés and former students became leading police chiefs, forensic scientists, criminal justice educators, lawyers, politicians, and military leaders. By the late 1940s, 25 police chiefs around the country had, at one time, served under Vollmer.

He took a leave of absence from the Berkeley department in 1924 to reorganize and head the Los Angeles Police Department. There he established police hiring standards and set up a crime lab, a records bureau, and a prevention unit concerned with juvenile delinquency. He formed a vice squad and put a stop to an epidemic of bank robberies and auto thefts. A prototype of today’s minimum-security prison farm was built to his specifications.

But although Vollmer made sweeping reforms, he was unable to eliminate the graft and effects of political corruption that dominated the Los Angeles department at that time. When he ran out of political support a year after taking office, he resigned. It was a bitter defeat. Vollmer learned that Los Angeles wasn't a small college town and that it took more than a formula for police efficiency to turn a massive and corrupt police force into a Berkeley-type department.

Vollmer became a law enforcement professor and scholar at the universities of Chicago and California. He surveyed and reorganized scores of American and foreign police departments as a consultant. In the early '30s, Vollmer and his assistants wrote several comprehensive reports that were published as parts of the Illinois Crime and Wickersham Commissions. He published dozens of articles that appeared in a variety of national magazines and journals.

After his “retirement” from the Berkeley Police Department in 1932, Vollmer traveled the world and took the opportunity to visit Scotland Yard, the Surete, and dozens of other European and Asian police departments. He wrote four books and continued to survey and reorganize police departments.

In 1955, at the age of 79, Vollmer ended his life by shooting himself with his service revolver. Suffering from Parkinson's Disease and cancer, he did not want to become bed-ridden and a burden.

But, before his death, Vollmer put his papers in order and willed his extensive criminal justice library to the Berkeley Police Department. Vollmer's papers are now at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley.

The innovative Vollmer left behind a legacy of police firsts. He began a police training academy, set up a crime laboratory, and put his entire patrol force into cars; he experimented with two-way police radios and established the first fingerprint bureau on the West Coast.

It's probably safe to say that few have contributed more to modern American law enforcement than August Vollmer

This page was last updated on: Monday, January 7, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com