Saving the history of the Berkeley Police Department

Picture of August Vollmer and other officers in 1905

When Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan heard that the late vintner Jess Jackson might have once been a Berkeley police officer in the 1950s, he was intrigued. Wouldn’t that be an interesting detour in a life that took Jackson from a poor childhood in San Francisco to the top of Kendall-Jackson, of one of the country’s largest and most successful wine companies?

Meehan was similarly interested when he heard that Evelyn Einstein, the granddaughter of Albert Einstein who died in Albany on April 13, was affiliated with the Berkeley police department.

Meehan knew exactly what to do to verify the information.

He called Sgt. Michael J. Holland.


For the past 14 years, Holland, who first became a Berkeley cadet in 1968, has been the keeper of the Berkeley police department history. He’s the person who made sure files weren’t thrown out when the police department moved from the old Hall of Justice into its new public safety building in 2001. He’s the one who made sure that old case reports were filmed and put on microfiche. He’s the man who people call when they want to find out whether a relative ever worked for BPD. He’s even figured out all sorts of interesting trivia, like the date of the first automobile fatality in Berkeley. (November 8, 1910)

Sgt. Michael J. Holland

In 1997, Holland helped create the Berkeley Police Department Historical Preservation Society. (Now known as the Berkeley Police Department Historical Unit.) It’s a mostly volunteer effort run on a tight budget, although Holland and the group put together an extensive exhibit for the department’s centennial in 2005. The members have also created a fascinating exhibit of police artifacts in the basement of the public safety building.

Now Holland is working to create a non-profit arm of the unit, to be known as the Berkeley Police Department Historical Foundation. He filed papers in Sacramento to form the group in December and hopes that it will be up and running later this year.

“There’s a history of the Berkeley Police Department that’s phenomenal in terms of police evolution,” said Holland. “I feel privileged to be in a position to preserve that history and make it available to the public and the new generation of law enforcement.”

And Holland doesn’t even formally work for the police department anymore. He retired from the department in April 2003 after he broke his leg in a work-related motorcycle accident. He now works as a US Marshall at the federal courthouse in Oakland. Since then, though, he has put in 1,530 hours working as a volunteer for the historical unit. (He keeps a log.) Other volunteers have put in another 464 hours.


Old police call box on display in basement of police department

One reason Holland is so fascinated by the department’s history is the role that August Vollmer, the department’s first chief, played in the development of modern policing. 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.

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

“He was our chief,” said Holland. “A lot of stuff got started during his term.”

Old riot helmet on display

Many of Vollmer’s accomplishments are commemorated in an L-shaped hallway in the basement of the police department. There is an old lie detector encased in a wooden box, a scale to weigh inmates, and an autographed picture of President John F. Kennedy, probably signed when he came to UC Berkeley in 1961, as well as many other artifacts.

As for the question of whether Jess Jackson worked for the Berkeley Police Department — he did, Holland determined. He was hired on May 25, 1952 and was issued Badge #35. He resigned September 29, 1952 to return to law school at UC Berkeley.


In Jackson’s separation letter, “he thanked the department for the experience and he complimented the department on its personnel and character,” said Holland.

Einstein, it turns out, was never a police officer but served in the police reserves, said Holland.