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Berkeley’s first police chief had lessons for today:new exhibit opening, and talk, on Sunday

Steven Finacom
Friday April 21, 2017 - 11:18:00 AM

This Sunday, April 23, the Berkeley Historical Society opens a new exhibit assessing the work and accomplishments of August Vollmer who became Berkeley’s first, and most famous, Chief of Police more than a century ago.

This may seem an odd topic for a historical exhibit in an era when the role of police—particularly in communities like Berkeley—is hotly debated. But it’s actually tremendously relevant, because Vollmer was a person “ahead of his time” whose philosophy and practices have importance today, both in Berkeley and beyond.

The exhibit opens Sunday with a talk at 2:00 PM in the City Council Chambers in old City Hall (Martin Luther King, Jr. Way between Allston and Center) by Dr. Will Oliver, who has just published a comprehensive biography of Vollmer. After the talk, the exhibit will be available for viewing across the street in the Veterans Memorial Building. Both events are free. 

See the Berkeley Historical Society website for more details. Copies of the book will also be available for purchase after the talk and at the History Center. 

Much of what “Gus” Vollmer did and advocated up to a century ago is now routine procedure for police across the country. He rightfully earned the accolade “Father of Modern American Policing” and did more than anyone else to make policing a proper profession with intelligent rules, standards, accountability, and ongoing training. 

Some of Vollmer’s policies and actions from before World War II would gain the support of Berkeley’s most vehement police critics today. 

If one of his police officers hit a suspect, except in clear self-defense, he told them it would be a firing offense. When a suspect who was being brought to the Berkeley jail escaped and was cornered by police nearby, Vollmer ordered his pursuing officers to put away their guns and re-captured the man himself without a weapon.  

His philosophy was that the punishment should fit the crime—and thus shooting an unarmed man for running away from police would not be tolerated. (Although he also said that if someone shot at police, the police could shoot back to kill.) 

When he met new officers for training, Vollmer told them that “I’ll admire you more if in the first year (on the force) you don’t make a single arrest. I’m not judging you on arrests. I’m judging you on how many people you keep from doing something wrong. Remember, you’re almost a father-confessor; you’re to listen to people…” 

He added “You’re not to judge people; you’re just to report what they do wrong. Better still, you can prevent people from doing wrong. That’s the mission of a policeman.” 

There, in a nutshell, is a key philosophy that is almost literally at war today with the way many people in the United States view the role of the police.  

Are the police like soldiers—trained to exert increasing (and increasingly lethal) force with an array of techniques and weaponry, until an identified “enemy” is subdued or destroyed?  

Or are they specially trained people in a civilian profession (albeit, armed) whose role is not only to enforce the law but to help de-escalate conflict and prevent problems?  

Vollmer, I think, was closer to the latter perspective even though he, himself, was a military veteran with extensive combat experience.  

Police, in his view I think, would not be uniformed para-military “warriors” patrolling the streets. They would be community builders and peace-keepers in the non-martial sense of the word. 

Vollmer was extremely progressive for his era. He was against the death penalty (he even wrote a position paper on it) and worked to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system. He was firmly against the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and argued that drug addiction should be handled as a medical, not a criminal, matter. He had his officers take drunk and disorderly people home if possible, rather than throwing them in jail. Many people he’d arrested and sent to jail later came to visit him after their release. 

In a time when most police officers had no more than a junior high school education (and Vollmer himself had attended only elementary school and one year of trade school) he emphasized hiring “college cops” and continuing education.  

He took full advantage of his post in a university town, repeatedly approaching and working with UC faculty to figure out how to apply their research and expertise to police matters like forensics, analysis of crime patterns, and criminal psychology. He helped found, and became a professor in, what was a widely respected Criminology School at UC Berkeley. 

Vollmer, the first child born to two German immigrants, came to Berkeley as a teenager, after his widowed mother relocated the family from New Orleans to San Francisco, then across the Bay. His early career ambition was to become a stenographer, but he ended up as a young man opening a feed store on Shattuck Avenue (fun fact; his store was where the Cheeseboard now operates).  

He enlisted in the Army during the Spanish American War, fought in the Philippines, got a job as a mail carrier in Berkeley after his discharge, and later ran for Town Marshal, just in time to help Berkeley cope with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. When Berkeley switched to an appointed police chief, Vollmer was hired for the job. 

During his tenure he pioneered many police innovations—bicycle patrols (in 1906), automobile patrols (in 1908 when motor vehicles were still few and far between on Berkeley streets), police radios, junior “police” for traffic safety around schools—and was solidly against any form of police corruption, inefficiency, or malfeasance, not only in Berkeley but in several cities where he was temporarily hired to implement police reforms.  

The Berkeley Police were one of the first departments to try out lie detectors, which ultimately didn’t live up to their early promise, but represented Vollmer’s tireless efforts to apply science, rather than brute force, to law enforcement. 

He hired Berkeley’s first woman police officer a century ago (although he also assigned her in part to work as a department stenographer and switchboard operator), welcomed a woman reporter from the Oakland Tribune to regularly cover the Berkeley Police—and even gave her a desk at the police station—and hired Berkeley’s first African-American police officer in 1918. 

When he hired the latter, Walter Gordon, a Cal graduate who was also working his way through law school at UC, Vollmer was confronted by several of his white officers who opposed the move. He listened to them complain, then said he was sorry they didn’t like his choice, and they could resign and leave their badges by the door as they left his office (none resigned, but he later fired one of them who continued to oppose having an African-American on the police force.) 

In sum, Vollmer was ahead of his time. And he helped make Berkeley a nationally famous city. Yes, Berkeley had a reputation, before the Sixties. 

For more information on Vollmer and the book, see this story at the UC Berkeley NewsCenter site: 

Steven Finacom is the past president of the Berkeley Historical Society.