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Sunday, September 30, 2012

August Vollmer: The Forgotten Father of Community Policing and Scientific Crime Detection

     In the modern-day struggle between the opposing models of law enforcement--community-based policing in which officers interact with citizens as public servants versus militaristic policing comprised of cops who see themselves as crime fighters in a hostile environment--the concept of community police is losing out. The rise of police militarism parallels the escalating war on drugs aided by the growing fear of domestic terrorism. The emergence of shock-and-awe policing and zero-tolereance peace keeping at the expense of police-community relations and the advancement of professionalized criminal investigation would have concerned August Vollmer, the now forgotten police administrator who envisioned an entirely different future for American law enforcement.

     In 1905, the citizens of Berkeley, California banded together to rid themselves of the prostitutes, gambling houses, and opium dens operating openly in their town. The man they elected to do the job was a 29-year-old uneducated mail carrier who promised to clean things up. Reform candidate August Vollmer kept his campaign promises, and as a result, rose from town marshall to chief of police, and, within a period of 16 years, became president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and one of the most influential police administrators in the country. During his law enforcement career, Vollmer introduced advances in police training, established concepts of effective personnel deployment, developed methods of dealing with juvenile offenders, established one of the nation's first fingerprint bureaus, maintained and used crime statistics, and crusaded for the use of science in crime detection. Over the years, Vollmer hammered out a theory of police professionalism later adopted by J. Edgar Hoover when he became director of the FBI in 1924.

     Vollmer did not believe in capital punishment, and became skeptical of J. Edgar Hoover's efforts to rid America of the "Red Menace" in the late 1940s and early 50s. He spoke out against the KKK at the peak of its power. After Pearl Harbor, he formed a committee to seek humane treatment for Japanese-Americans who were interred in prison camps. Vollmer also spoke out against the so-called "third-degree" as an interrogation technique.

     In 1919, Vollmer placed an ad in the school newspaper at the University of California soliciting student applicants for jobs as police officers. Over the years, hundreds of full-time college students applied for these positions. Vollmer's "college cops" included Walter Gordon, the department's first black officer, John Larson, the future inventor of the polygraph, and V.A. Leonard who became a well-known writer and criminal justice educator.

     Hundreds of Vollmer's proteges became police administrators like O.W. Wilson who became chief of the Chicago Police Department. Others became forensic scientists, lawyers, military leaders, and politicians. By the late 1940s, at least 25 police chiefs around the country had served under August Vollmer.

     In 1924, Vollmer took leave of the Berkeley Police Department to reorganize and head the Los Angeles Police Department. There he established hiring standards and set up a crime lab and a crime records bureau. He formed a vice squad, and created a bank robbery unit to combat the epidemic of bank hold-ups in the city. Notwithstanding his efforts to professionalize the Los Angeles Police Department, Vollmer was unable to eliminate the graft and political corruption that had become ingrained in the organization. After a year in Los Angeles where he had lost political support for his reform agenda, Vollmer resigned in defeat. He had learned that big city police departments, unlike law enforcement agencies in college towns like Berkeley, were almost impossible to control.

     Following his retirement from the Berkeley Police Department in 1932, Vollmer visited Scotland Yard, the Surete in France, and dozens of other European police departments. He wrote four books and continued to survey and reorganize troubled law enforcement agencies in the United States. He became a law enforcement professor at the universities of Chicago and California.

     In 1955, at the age of 79, Vollmer ended his life by shooting himself with his service revolver. Suffering from Parkinson's Disease and cancer, he didn't want to become a burden. His wife had predeceased him, and they had no children. Before pulling the trigger, he called the Berkeley Police Department to report his own suicide. He had willed his papers and extensive criminal justice library to the University of California at Berkeley. His archives are located at the university's Bancroft Library.

     

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