Update: The City Council approved this as a consent item on Sept. 15.
Original story: City Councilmember Cheryl Davila wants the East Bay Regional Park District to rename Tilden Park’s Vollmer Peak – named after Berkeley’s first police chief and park district co-founder, August Vollmer – amid accusations Vollmer supported eugenics and was at least partially responsible for what she characterizes as “systemic racism” in today’s department.
Davila’s recommendation, slated for the council’s consent calendar Tuesday, urges the district to ask the community to suggest new names. It’s an extension of what Davila wrote is “unprecedented engagement in discussions of policing and community safety in the past several months.”
“As the city takes the time to deeply consider the role of police in public safety and figure out the best way to invest in community safety resources, we must also consider the history of policing in Berkeley,” wrote Davila.
“Vollmer Peak is a popular hiking and cycling destination; upholding this name is a covert signal that not all are welcome to enjoy the East Bay Regional Parks,” wrote Davila, who didn’t respond to requests to comment for this story.
Davila acknowledges that Vollmer has been called “the father of American policing” for his innovations, which included hiring African-Americans and women. She also wrote, “his innovations were foundational for institutionalizing the systemic racial bias in policing that is evident in (the) Berkeley Police Department in recent years.”
Vollmer is integral to the history and identity of BPD
The Berkeley Police Department is proud of Vollmer’s legacy and has a display at its headquarters that includes artifacts, documents, and photos. It also discusses Vollmer’s accomplishments on its website. When Andrew Greenwood was sworn in as the new chief in 2017 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. In 2010, former Police Chief Michael Meehan also quoted Vollmer when he was sworn in.
A spokesperson for the Berkeley Police said the department doesn’t comment on council legislation.
Vollmer, who was born in 1876 and settled in Berkeley in 1890, became town marshal in 1905, then Berkeley’s first police chief from 1909 until 1932. He also created the first policing program at UC Berkeley in 1916.
Vollmer was the first to put officers on bicycles and vehicles and establish a call box system around the city so police could communicate with one another while out in the field. He was also responsible for the country’s first police crime lab and insisted his department rely on scientific evidence like fingerprints in solving crimes. He rejected brute force and other methods that could be construed as torture.
In 1919, Vollmer hired the country’s first African American police officer, Walter Gordon, who was also a Cal football star and the country’s second Black All-American, according to August Vollmer: The Father of American Policing, a 2017 biography by Willard Oliver, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas. When white police officers complained, Vollmer told them they could resign. Vollmer also fired officers who continued to badmouth Gordon.
“Vollmer was very progressive when it came to treating everyone equally, looking for the qualities they brought to the job and not their ethnicity or gender,” said retired Berkeley Police Sgt. Michael Holland, who directs the department’s historical unit. “Vollmer was a person ahead of his time, who also realized, I believe, that you need to work within the system that exists in order to promote change.”
In 2017, Oliver, who didn’t reply to requests for comment for this story, told Berkeleyside, “I think his story could teach (modern police) a lot about what good policing truly is about … if I had to say one thing (about Vollmer) I would say it was Volmer’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 became involved with eugenics in 1924
In 1924, Vollmer became a member of the American Eugenics Society, which “described eugenics as the study of improving the genetic composition of humans through controlled reproduction of different races and classes of people.” His writings around that time suggest he regarded certain humans as superior to others. In a 1926 paper, Vollmer suggested improving the country’s economic conditions was one way to prevent crime. Other ways should include limiting “undesirables” from immigrating and prohibiting reproduction by people with disabilities, he wrote.
“What shall be said of the children begotten of feeble-minded, insane, epileptic and other degenerate persons?” Vollmer wrote in “The Prevention and Detection of Crime as Viewed by a Police Officer,” in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 125, (May 1926). “Why not make an effort to prevent such defectives from reproducing their kind? Preventing the socially unfit from multiplying [is] … vital to national welfare and would greatly reduce crime statistics.”
In Vollmer’s 1917 outline of how he would structure a “school of police” at UC Berkeley, he included many books about eugenics as well as courses that would discuss the topic, such as one titled: “Criminology, Anthropology and Heredity.”
Davila acknowledged in her letter Vollmer’s progressiveness for his time. She also wrote “it is clear that he personally upheld white supremacy and further codified it in his esteemed criminology school. Vollmer was a member of multiple eugenics societies and his proposed curriculum for his criminology school included units on racial types, race degeneration, eugenics, and hereditary crime and criminal tendencies.”
Vollmer was also a founding board member of the East Bay Regional Parks District, on which he served for 15 years, said district spokeswoman Carol Johnson. A district document cites Vollmer’s work with the district as the main reason it renamed the former Bald Peak. At 1,905 feet above sea level, Vollmer Peak in Tilden Park is the highest point in the Berkeley Hills.
“(Vollmer) wrote a great amount of correspondence relating to how parks and recreation activities were positive alternatives for all communities and a significant deterrent to criminal behavior,” it says.
The document also points out “three controversial things we know and that might be researched if there is additional public interest in Vollmer.”
“He was on the leadership board of the Eugenics Society and involved with growing the organization,” it says. “That included having controversial opinions of controlling populations of disadvantaged communities and/or people who were thought to be mentally incapable (including people who had problems with addiction) – and supported birth control to that end. It also says he taught “race degeneration,” and that poor communities of color needed additional police involvement.
Vollmer “moved away” from eugenics when society members became involved with “race and Nazism,” according to the EBRPD document. It also mentions his support for euthanasia (faced with poor health, Vollmer killed himself in 1955 at the age of 79).
“Certainly, our board will look forward to receiving Berkeley’s request and doing its due diligence to review and publicly discuss any potential name changes,” Johnson said. “Earlier this year, our board took action via resolution to denounce racism and stand in solidarity with the Black community and persons of color.”
Davila’s letter comes with a survey of “East Bay Regional Park Stakeholders” with 125 respondents – 73 from Berkeley, 20 from Oakland, and the rest from surrounding communities.
About 88% answered “yes” when asked if Vollmer Peak should be renamed. More than 87% answered “no” to the statement “I think we should keep Vollmer’s name and educate the public about him.”
Vollmer, known as “Uncle Gus,” gave out sweets to neighborhood kids
Berkeley resident Steve Taylor grew up next door to Vollmer during the 1950s and remembers the neighborhood kids calling him “Uncle Gus.”
“We’d visit him in his library regularly,” said Taylor, who still lives in Berkeley. “As kids, we knew where to go in the ‘hood for free sweets in the afternoon and Vollmer’s house was one of our favorites.”
Taylor, who once wrote an article about Vollmer for the Berkeley Historical Society, said Vollmer was interested in what made some young people criminals while others were law-abiding.
“He observed us carefully from that point of view, my mother told me,” Taylor said. “My mother was Latinx. She grew up in Los Angeles during the depression, learned English by reading the Sunday comics, and knew what racism looked like and what it felt like. She opposed racism, but she liked and admired August Vollmer. I think she sensed that he was not a racist.”
Davila’s request follows her recent push to cut the police budget by 50%, a proposal the council rejected in July, in favor of Mayor Jesse Arreguin’s “omnibus motion” of reforms. The new policy creates a new transportation department with a “racial justice lens,” launching a comprehensive audit of police calls and creating a new community process around a variety of public safety reforms.
Arreguin declined to comment on Davila’s latest proposal.
Davila unsuccessfully called for a vote of no confidence in Chief Greenwood, after the June 9 council meeting, at which Greenwood was asked what tools officers would have if their lives were threatened and they didn’t have tear gas at their disposal.
“Firearms,” Greenwood said. “We can shoot people. If you are being attacked with lethal force, if we don’t have less lethal that can drive it back, then we’re absent a tool. That’s my concern. I’m not trying to be overly dramatic and I apologize.”
Frances Dinkelspiel contributed reporting for this article.