Major new biography, exhibit on August Vollmer, Berkeley’s first police chief

In the first half of the 20th century, Berkeley’s first police chief was a household name. When Americans thought about the giants of crimefighting, August Vollmer was in the pantheon that included FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Wyatt Earp, the deputy marshal who participated in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

His renown was understandable. Vollmer started as town marshal in 1905 and then took over the new Berkeley Police Department in 1909. He was an innovator and ushered in many improvements that are commonplace today, earning him the nickname of the “father of American policing.”

Vollmer was the first to put an entire police force on bicycles. He improved the way police got information about crime, first by installing flashing red recall lights scattered around Berkeley that told officers to return to headquarters, then by using Morse Code to deliver to them the address where a crime had been committed. Vollmer was the first to have his force use cars, earning officers the nickname “limousine police.”  Vollmer hired the country’s first female police officer in 1917 and its first African-American officer in 1918. He insisted on collecting physical evidence from crime scenes and using that evidence — rather than hunches — to find criminals. His protégés invented the lie detector and the Berkeley Police Department was among the first to use it. Vollmer also required that all Berkeley police officers have a college degree.

Vollmer also believed in the humanity of criminals and that they could be redeemed, rejecting the use of brute force and intense interrogations such as the third degree, a common practice of torture in that time.


Today, Vollmer’s name is not widely recognized, even among Berkeley residents. Yes, there is Vollmer Peak, in Tilden Park, but few know the details about his life and accomplishments.

Willard M. Oliver, the author of a new biography about Berkeley’s first police chief, August Vollmer, stands in front of an old lie detector that was developed by Vollmer’s proteges and used by the police department. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Willard M. Oliver, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, hopes to change that. And his chances are good, as his new 780-page book, August Vollmer: The Father of American Policing — the first comprehensive biography on the police chief — has just been published. Oliver and the Berkeley Historical Society have also worked together to create a major new exhibit on Vollmer. The show opens Sunday at 3 p.m. at 1931 Center St. Oliver will deliver a talk with photos before that, at 2 p.m. at Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

“The name faded with time,” said Steve Finacom, a historian who helped with the Vollmer exhibit now on display. “His life and his philosophy are very relevant today. For example, how would Vollmer have reacted to the extremist gathering in the park?” he said, pointing to Civic Center Park, across the street from the Historical Society and the site of recent protests.

One group that has not forgotten Vollmer is the Berkeley Police Department. When Andrew Greenwood was sworn in as the new chief Thursday at a ceremony at the UC Theatre, he quoted Vollmer and pointed out the former chief’s badge and revolver were on display in the lobby. Former Police Chief Michael Meehan also quoted Vollmer when he was sworn in and has frequently mentioned him.

Vollmer’s accomplishments also live on in the basement of the police department headquarters. There is a display of historical documents, artifacts, and photos relating to Vollmer and the history of the department. Retired Sgt. Michael J. Holland helped create the Berkeley Police Department Historical Preservation Society in 1997. (It’s now known as the Berkeley Police Department Historical Unit.)


Berkeleyside caught up with Oliver to talk to him about the publication of August Vollmer: The Father of American Policing. Copies are available for sale at the Berkeley Historical Society for $70.

What attracted you to the story of August Vollmer?

I was introduced to Vollmer as a criminal justice undergraduate and was always fascinated by his story, having both joined the military and served as a police officer, as he had done. As a professor, in 2005, I was finishing up a book on A History of Crime and Criminal Justice in America and had used all of the same resources that everyone else uses to convey Vollmer’s contributions to American policing. I said when I was done, I wanted to read a good, one-volume, definitive biography of August Vollmer. Finding none, I decided to write one.

How many years did it take you to research and write the book?

It took me 10 years. I started collecting everything I could on August Vollmer from my office, which ended up being a fair amount. Then I went to the Bancroft Library for a week and was absolutely overwhelmed by their holdings which included his personal papers and the BPD’s papers while he was police chief (1909-1932). That necessitated six more week-long trips. I also started looking at other databases and, again, was overwhelmed by the amount of articles on Vollmer. For instance, I did a newspaper search and was floored when I received 17,000 hits. I ended up with over 10,000 newspaper articles printed, highlighted, and placed in 3 ring binders. It took me three years before I could even write anything, I was so overwhelmed. Until now, it has never taken me more than 3 years to write a book. I finished the manuscript in July of last year and it finally came out last month.


Did you find any information or materials that had not been previously discovered?

Yes, many! I detail all of this at the end of the book when explaining my references. For example, I came across a serial chapter biography of Vollmer’s life published in the Oakland Enquirer in 1938 that I have never seen referenced. Another treasure trove was a two-volume set of transcribed interviews of people who knew and worked with Vollmer that has never been used before. Gene Carte, whose UC Berkeley dissertation was on Vollmer, was planning to use those transcripts for a biography of Vollmer. Unfortunately, he was shot and killed in Cincinnati when he tried intervening in an armed robbery. Nearly all of the pictures I have used for the book, probably 45-50, have never been published before.

He is credited with modernizing policing. As Berkeley police chief he was the first to put police officers on bicycles and in cars, was the first to set up radios around the city so police could communicate with headquarters, was the first to introduce lie detectors. In addition, he insisted on the collection of evidence at crime scenes, created an improved record-keeping system to track criminals, and ushered in a more professional approach to policing. As a result, he is a lauded leader. Is there one innovation you consider more significant than the others? Or is Vollmer renowned because of the collection of innovations?

I would have to divide my answer in two. I think Vollmer would say his greatest contribution was in police education. That had become truly his life’s mission. He helped create the first policing program in 1916 (called Criminology, but was police focused) at Cal. In 1929, he became the first police professor at the University of Chicago. He then helped several of his officers land professor positions. In 1941, he created the American Society of Criminology in his living room, and when that turned more theoretical, the police faculty broke away and created the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. Both of those organizations still exist today. And every criminal justice and criminology program in higher education owes their origins to Berkeley Police Chief August Vollmer.

The second part of the answer is what I believe was truly his greatest contribution and that was the influence he had on so many people, including many of his officers. That influence and support led John Larson to develop the polygraph, V.A. Leonard to develop one-way radio communication in patrol vehicles, and O.W. Wilson to write the most influential police administration book of the 20th century. It was Vollmer’s humanity — his love for people — that I believe was his greatest contribution to American policing.

Can you describe one particular crime Vollmer or his department solved that was particularly interesting?

Probably the Tony Carcopa case, and you’ll see why, although he had many. Tony was an Italian vegetable peddler who received a death notice from the Black Hand (Italian Mafia). He was told to pay a ransom and not contact the police. Tony immediately went to see Gus Vollmer. Vollmer had Tony’s house watched, and one night someone attempted to toss dynamite into the house but failed when the police interrupted him. The bad guy, however, got away. Vollmer took the dynamite to Berkeley professor Albert Schneider to analyze — remember, this is before forensic analysis. Schneider came back with the details of where to look, right down to a location with a fast-running stream, sorrel horses, and Rhode Island Roosters. Vollmer ordered his officers to search for such a place and he was laughed at. Lo and behold, the officers found the place, located the dynamite, and ended up making arrests of two men. Vollmer asked Schneider to become the BPD’s first criminalist and he agreed. That was the first crime lab ever created and it is why Vollmer is often referred to as the father of criminalistics/forensic science.

Vollmer created the Department of Criminology at UC Berkeley in 1951. Was it a success? What were some of its accomplishments? Why did Cal eliminate the department?

Actually, Vollmer retired in 1937 and then taught only on a class-by-class basis. His health was starting to decline at that time. It was O.W. Wilson, Vollmer’s disciple, who opened up the School of Criminology in 1950. It was a stalwart leader in police education and the opening of the school was a lasting accomplishment of Vollmer’s legacy in the people who earned their degrees there and went on to shape the future of criminal justice. What happened … well, this is a politically sensitive topic, as I have come to learn, so I will keep it simple. In the 1960s, criminology turned theoretical. It moved away from policing and more toward explaining why people commit crimes. It also took a very radical/Marxist turn and much of the student protesting was or was perceived to have come out of the School of Criminology. So it was closed.

Why did Vollmer destroy so much of his correspondence at the end of his life? How much did this hamper your research?

My best guess is that he was very methodical in what he destroyed. I think he recognized that his papers may be important to scholars one day, which is why he willed them over to the Bancroft Library before he died. It was not as if he purged everything, only those letters that might cause some embarrassment to the people who wrote them. Hundreds upon hundreds of people wrote to Vollmer — friends, family, strangers, children and criminals. He responded to them all. In many cases, people were seeking his advice and help. Some of those letters may have been about sensitive issues, so those are the ones he most likely removed. In many cases, he mailed them back to the author or, if not available, destroyed them.

Vollmer committed suicide. Do you think it was because he was in pain because of his Parkinson’s disease? What was his mental acuity like at the end of his life?

In the last five years of his life, he had seven major surgeries — including one for a stomach tumor and two for throat cancer (he smoked). The Parkinson’s gave him the shakes and caused him to have diminished eyesight. Then the medicine he took for the Parkinson’s nearly caused him to go blind. He was also having bouts of dementia that last year of his life as was recorded in several police reports and documentation by Police Chief Holstrom. Vollmer had sworn he would never be a burden on anyone. And, because he had long been a member of the Hemlock Society and the Euthanasia Society — he was a California chapter board member — suicide was always an option for him.

After his retirement, August Vollmer, center, gathered annually with former and current police officers once a year to talk about policing and practice shooting. Photo: Berkeley Historical Society.

How does Vollmer stand in the pantheon of police professionals? Did he have any messages that today’s police should be paying more attention to?

Vollmer is legendary in policing circles and is where academics start when talking about good policing in America. What is kind of sad is his standing with Americans. He was a household name. If I mentioned J. Edgar Hoover, Allan Pinkerton or Wyatt Earp, you would probably know who I was talking about. It used to be, for most Americans, if you mentioned August Vollmer, people knew you meant the police chief in Berkeley who was doing good things in policing. He lost the status of his being a household name shortly after his death, which is kind of sad.

As for what he could teach police officers today? I think his story could teach them a lot about what good policing truly is all about. Dr. Larry Sherman, who wrote the foreword to my book, certainly believes so. However, if I had to say one thing, I would say it was Vollmer’s unshakeable belief in humanity. And that his lesson for his officers was to remember that the criminal element, as bad as they can be, are still humans. Vollmer wasn’t overly religious, but he certainly was an exemplar for what it means to live in the Christian spirit. He treated his friends, his officers, his prisoners, the neighborhood children, his African-American friends, his Japanese-American friends, and everyone else he met the same — with both dignity and respect.

See Vollmer play himself in the 1926 silent serial film, Officer 444. He appears at 2:55.