Government

Remembering August Vollmer, the Berkeley police chief who created modern policing

Berkeley police officers in 1925

As Berkeley gets ready to swear in Michael K. Meehan on Thursday as the city’s new police chief, perhaps it is appropriate to take a look back at the city’s very first chief. After all, he is credited with modernizing American policing.

Not many people know about August Vollmer, but when he was alive he was one of the most famous men in the country. While serving as Berkeley’s chief of police from 1909-1931, (he was marshal from 1905-1909) Vollmer introduced numerous concepts that transformed policing into what it is today.

August Vollmer

When Vollmer came into office, police officers were known more for their brutality and corruption than their crime-solving skills. Gambling and opium parlors operated openly in Berkeley because the owners paid off city officials. Vollmer, who only had a sixth grade education, banned graft and gifts, and instituted a series of reforms that are credited with transforming policing into a modern profession. Vollmer:

  • Was the first chief to put officers on bicycles, (1910) then on motorcycles (1911) and then in patrol cars (1913) and then put radio communications in the cars. 1928)
  • Created a centralized police records system, one of the first in the US (1906)
  • Was the first chief in the US to insist his department use blood, fiber, and soil analysis to solve crimes. (1907) Vollmer’s emphasis on scientific investigation spurred the creation of numerous crime laboratories around the state.
  • Started the world’s first police school where officers could learn about the laws of evidence. (1907)
  • Was the first to use radio communications between officers (1914)
  • Formed the first juvenile division in the US (1914)
  • Was the first police chief to require officers get college degrees
  • Pioneered the teaching of criminal justice classes by starting a program at UC Berkeley (1916)
  • Outlawed the use of the “third degree,” meaning police officers could no longer brutalize detainees to extract information.
  • Was the first chief to use the lie detector in investigations (1921)
  • Was one of the first to use fingerprints to identify suspects
  • Vollmer hired one of the nation’s first African-American cops (1919) and the first female cop (1925)
  • Suggested that the role of police is to prevent crime rather than just to solve it. To understand the criminal mind better, Vollmer visited the jail each morning to talk to prisoners and corresponded extensively with men he had put in prison. (Unfortunately, he burned all these letters before his death. The rest of his correspondence is in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.)
  • Opposed capital punishment

Early lie detector

Vollmer became so associated with police reform that he took extended leaves of absence from Berkeley to help out other departments. He helped reorganize the police departments in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, Dallas and in Cuba.

Vollmer was fond of the outdoors and was an early supporter of the creation of the East Bay Regional Park District. Vollmer Peak, also known as Bald Peak, is named in his honor.

On November 4, 1955, at the age of 79, and suffering from cancer, Vollmer committed suicide at his Berkeley home.

For more historic photos of the Berkeley police department, click here.

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  • Sgt. Stephen Grismer (ret)

    Vollmer did much but the claim that he hired one of the nation’s first African-American cops (1919) and the first female cop (1925) needs to be reexamined.  Dayton, Ohio hired an African-American officer in 1875 and had a career African-American officer who was hired in 1898 and was pensioned in 1916.  Dayton also had policewomen in 1914. 

  • bgal4

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Does this mean Berkeley is not so SPECIAL after all ?

  • Steve Grismer

    Berkeley had Vollmer as Chief… someone who’s background I was interested in learning so that I could put his considerable accomplishments in context with policing reforms in Dayton.  I would say that makes it SPECIAL.  I hate to see the credibility of actual Vollmer reforms dismissed because of a few misstatements.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.wafer.1 Jonathan Wafer

    Nice story..I am Jonathan Wafer and am the great-grandson of Walter Gordon:Berkeley’s first African-American police officer. Walter was invited to join the police department by Vollmer in 1919. Walter worked full-time for ten years. He attended Boalt Hall law scholl while moonlighting as a cop, working the graveyard shift in west Berkeley. Before Gordon began his police career the department received an anonymous death threat letter protesting his being sent to that beat. Not only did Walter accept the challenge, when the department was going to transfer him, the citizens of west Berkeley asked that he be kept there. After graduating from Boalt Hall in 1922 and passing the Bar exam, Walter Gordon started his own law practice in the Wells Fargo building still located today on the corner of University and San Pablo
    Avenues in west Berkeley. Many of his clients knew him from his police work in that area. A Boalt graduate and lifelong friend, Earl Warren appointed Walter to the State parole board (The Adult Authority) in 1943 when Warren was Governor of California. Then in 1955, Walter was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as Governor of the Virgin Islands. (See “Remembering Berkeley’s First Black Police Officer”, http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com)

  • emraguso

    Thank you for sharing your family’s story. We at Berkeleyside appreciate it.

  • David

    Walter was first Black Cop in Berkeley. His father was fjrst in Riverside. I’ve often refer to August as the father of police forensic science. Very enlightening article. We want more, we want more Berkeley History. Keep the good stuff coming Berkeleyside.

  • HarryUSA

    Are you sure about the radio communications? In 1928 Detroit Police Chief William Rutledge is credited on FCC dot Gov as being the first to use one way radios in the city’s police cars.