Meet the Berkeley mailman who shaped modern-day policing at the turn of the century | KALW

Meet the Berkeley mailman who shaped modern-day policing at the turn of the century

Aug 22, 2017


Police reform is a polarizing issue.

The Black Lives Matter movement wants an end to police brutality. Blue Lives Matter supporters say the rise in ambush-style police killings demonstrate there’s an ongoing war on cops that needs to be addressed.

But at the turn of the 20th century, no one of any political persuasion trusted police. Berkeley’s first police chief, August Vollmer, decided to change that. Vollmer is known as the father of American policing, and what you think of Vollmer’s legacy may depend on what you think of modern law enforcement.

Two conflicting ideas about police

To many activists, nothing screams “militarization of the police” quite like Urban Shield, a huge training exercise in which emergency responders from around the world act out dangerous scenarios, like earthquakes and terrorist attacks. This controversial event has taken place in the Bay Area every year since 2007.

During a Berkeley city council meeting in spring 2017, activists demanded the city’s police department withdraw from Urban Shield. Activist Sagnicthe Salazar of the Stop Urban Shield Coalition said the training program teaches police to view community members as enemy combatants.

“There's no reason why a local police officer should have weaponry used for war, and what we do know is that the police agencies, whether you talk about Oakland or Berkeley, are in constant war with our people."

But the Berkeley police department has also faced scrutiny for not being assertive enough.

In April 2017, pro-Trump demonstrators and counter protesters clashed in Berkeley. Fireworks and smoke bombs were thrown into the crowd, and a known white supremacist punched an anti-Trump protester in the face.  

“This is insane, the police are literally just standing around, not doing anything,” said Luke Rudkowski, an independent journalist.

“These guys are just standing there, and there’s people getting seriously hurt over here.”

The protectors of the criminal underworld

The authoritative, militaristic cop and the hands-off officer both have the same roots. At the turn of the 20th century, Berkeley’s first police chief, August Vollmer, transformed law enforcement into the professional field it is today.

“August Vollmer was a household name. He was well known before J. Edgar Hoover ever was,” says Willard Oliver, a retired police officer, criminology professor, and the author of the new book, August Vollmer: The Father of American Policing. “He wanted to improve policing, he wanted to make it a profession, and he realized education was going to be the key to make that happen.”

Before Vollmer took the helm in 1905, law enforcement basically governed the criminal underworld, protecting drug lords and brothel owners. If you were a criminal and wanted to turn your crime into big business, you would pay the police to have your back. Oliver says law enforcement didn’t exist to protect and serve the people.

“Black market kind of institutions, gambling, casinos, prostitution, opium dens in Berkeley, they were allowed to run, as long as they paid graft to the police department, or at the time, the Town Marshall,” Oliver explains.

The father of American policing

When Vollmer — the humble letter carrier — ran for Town Marshall, he vowed to change that. Once elected, Vollmer went after the opium lords, and made more surprising changes, like putting his officers on bicycles.

“The 1890s was the decade of the bicycle craze,” Oliver says. “So bicycles were popular, but but no one thought of using them for policing.”

He organized the first police motorcycle patrol, and eventually, he had his officers drive around in cars.  

He was also the first chief to have his officers communicate by radio. He only had a sixth grade education, but he wanted law enforcement to be intelligent. Borrowing a technique from the military, he tested the IQs of his officers. But his police kept failing the tests.

“So, he started recruiting...asking for college students who wanted a part time, full time job, where they could work at night, attend classes during the day,” Oliver says. “That became the College Cops.”

That’s one reason Vollmer is best known as a champion of education in law enforcement. Another is that he developed the nation’s first criminology department at the University of California at Berkeley, where police officers took classes on policing. But Vollmer’s first major test on the job came during the 1906 earthquake.

Thousands of people fled the devastation in San Francisco, and moved to Berkeley. So, Chief Vollmer asked Spanish-American War veterans to temporarily serve as police officers, to help maintain the peace.   

“He temporarily deputized them. Some of the Civil War veterans were like, ‘Hey, what about us?’ So he deputized them, too,” Oliver says.

The gospel of Vollmer started spreading. He was hired as a consultant to clean up police departments, in places like Detroit, Chicago, even in Cuba. He inspired the likes of J. Edgar Hoover to professionalize the FBI.

The militarization of American police

Tony Platt, a professor who taught in the criminology department Vollmer developed at UC Berkeley, says Vollmer was a leader in a national effort to reform the police.

“So, this early police professionalism movement, was about making sure the police were more professionally trained, more educated, not just brawn, but brains as well, a credentialism program,” Platt says.

Platt says it was no accident Vollmer enlisted military men to serve as police. And in doing so, Platt says, Vollmer helped birth what we refer to today as the “War on Crime”. Vollmer studied military tactics, and said they were very effective in “rounding up crooks.” Vollmer also said there was an ongoing war against “the enemies of society.”

The country’s first criminology department turns radical

Vollmer developed the criminology department at Berkeley to educate police, but by the 60s, radicals and activists were teaching and taking classes in the school too. The department’s criminology professors, like Platt, taught students about the need for police and prison reform.

“We worked closely with the Black Panther Party to develop different models of policing, to try to transform policing from being a military type of occupation into a public service occupation,” Platt says.

Police before Vollmer were corrupt, but police after Vollmer were tear-gassing and clubbing students. Platt says that by militarizing law enforcement, Vollmer created more distance between cops and the people they serve. During the 60s and 70s, police-community relations were at a breaking point.

“They were putting people in jail and prison for the political activities,” Platt says. “It was sort of like, ‘we're on one side, we're on the other, it's a battle, you think it's a war on us, we think it's a war against you.’”

Berkeley's criminology department was shut down in 1976, but that tension is still there.

Remembering August Vollmer’s legacy

There’s some irony that the August Vollmer exhibition at the Berkeley Historical Society is located just a few blocks away from where the recent free speech protests took place. When Platt stopped by the exhibition, he thought about the violent demonstration that took place nearby.

“It’s a place where the police were trying to figure out how to deal with these protests currently taking place in Berkeley, and it's right next to this place where you have an exhibition on the history of policing,” Platt says.

Michael Holland, retired Berkeley police sergeant and founder of the Berkeley Police Department Historical Unit, shows me around the exhibition. Photographs and newspaper clippings fill the room. One photo shows Vollmer surrounded by children in his neighborhood. They knew him as “Uncle Gus”.

“There's eleven kids in the neighborhood that are there, with the youngest in his lap holding a candy box, and all the kids kind of reaching over each other to pick up a piece of candy,” Holland says.

Vollmer may have his critics, but Holland says he taught police to be fair to everyone. He would share a drink with newly released inmates, who would sometimes come to Berkeley just to visit him. He was against the death penalty, and didn’t view drug use as a crime. His legacy is complicated. As an older man and retired cop, “Uncle Gus” became afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, and committed suicide in 1955.

“He waited until 9am in the morning, because he knew on that day, all the kids here would be in school, so they didn't have to hear the sound of the gunshot, or hear the ambulance of the cops arriving,” Holland says. “Right or wrong, that probably tells you a lot about who he was from the standpoint of a caring man.”

Vollmer’s suicide tainted his legacy, and historians say it’s also why few people outside law enforcement remember him today. Historian Willard Oliver says that if Vollmer was still alive, he’d have a lot of questions.

“He would probably wonder why there are still so many issues that science and all of the technology and everything hasn't solved yet. He'd wonder why the police were so involved in the issue of drugs,” Oliver says. “He'd wonder why the school of criminology doesn't exist anymore. I'm sure he'd have a lot to say about a lot of things.”

If people want to understand what needs to change to improve police-community relations today, August Vollmer might not have all the answers. But he got us started on this path, so looking back on his legacy is probably a good place to begin.


To learn more about August Vollmer, check out the exhibition on Vollmer himself at the the Berkeley Historical Society. It's on display until September 23rd. But if you miss it, pick up a copy of the new book 'August Vollmer: The Father of American Policing' by Willard Oliver.