Conversations about reforming American policing have been percolating for years, but they came rushing to the forefront in May 2020, after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd. Protesters around the world took to the streets calling for justice and police accountability.
The majority of protests were peaceful, and many police responded professionally. But there were also violent clashes. Multiple videos began circulating showing startling violence by police against protesters. Police armed with tasers, guns and batons, decked out in riot gear, bulletproof vests and helmets performed flanking maneuvers around crowds of screaming people. They beat unarmed civilians, fired tear gas at close range and shot people with bean bag bullets. All this only served to sharpen critiques of the police.
Bay Curious listener Blake Schmidt watched the violence unfold in our public squares and decided he needed to become more educated about the history of policing. While reading "The End of Policing" by Alex Vitale, Blake came across a man from Berkeley named August Vollmer.
“He’s credited with being the ‘Father of Modern Policing,’ ” Blake said.
That information stopped Blake in his tracks. He’s always thought of Berkeley as a liberal bubble, a place where progressive reforms start. Could Berkeley really be responsible for the type of militarization he was seeing on the streets?
“It seems like we put this militarization in front and we say we’re just going to squash it with tear gas and force. Clearly, there’s a lot of issues with doing that. And is that what Vollmer had envisioned?” Blake said.
The Making of August Vollmer
August Vollmer was born in New Orleans in 1876, but moved with his mother first to San Francisco and then to Berkeley in the 1890s. Towards the end of that decade, Vollmer went off to fight in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. It was there that he learned many of the tactics he would later apply to policing.
When Vollmer first returned from fighting overseas he wasn’t thinking about becoming a cop. He was a mail carrier in Berkeley. One day while he was delivering the mail, he noticed a runaway railroad car careening down Shattuck Avenue towards a station where a crowd of people were waiting. Vollmer ran, jumped on the renegade train car and stopped it before it crashed into the crowd. This feat won him some local press, and soon Berkeley’s elite were asking him to run for town marshal, the top cop at the time. He won the election and took office in 1905.
This was a moment in the history of American policing called the Political Era. Police were entirely beholden to whoever held political power. They did what the mayor told them, whether it was garnering good will by reuniting lost children with their parents, breaking up strikes or dragging people to the polls and telling them how to vote.
“Whole entire police departments are beholden to certain mayors or certain political parties,” said Perfecta Oxholm, a public policy doctoral student at UC Berkeley who studies policing. “There's a lot of corruption because they're also not paid very well.”
Police often took bribes. They weren’t very well educated. And they regularly beat people they detained.
August Vollmer didn't stand for any of that when he took over Berkeley’s police force. He set about reforming his little Police Department 20 years before it was common, setting a new tone in policing that began to spread across the country.
“He institutes training academies,” Oxholm said. “He very much values formal education for police officers, whereas before, that wasn't a part of the job requirements.”
“Let me just give you some things that I choose to call Vollmerisms,” Holstrom said. “ ‘Kill them with kindness.’ ‘Never hit a person, except in self-defense; if you do, you have just resigned.’ ‘There could be more fair justice distributed at the curbstone than in some of the highest courts.’ ”
After the American military drove the Spanish out of the Philippines in 1899, the U.S. tried to take over the Philippines for itself. But the Filipino people did not want to be colonial subjects of the United States, so they continued to fight a war of independence against the U.S. military. It was a brutal war in which at least 200,000 Filipino people died, but some estimates put the death toll at almost 1 million people. Filipino independence fighters fought a guerrilla war for three years, forcing the U.S. army to develop new tactics.
“The Filipino insurgents were out in the jungles and the plains of Central Luzon in the Philippines,” said Julian Go, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.
In response, the U.S. military collected intelligence from spies about where fighters were hiding and sent mobile units on horseback to hunt them down in the jungle. They mapped the locations of insurgent attacks and tried to predict where the next attack would be. Vollmer learned these tactics and brought them back to the U.S.
"Vollmer took that same idea and said, criminals are kind of like Filipino insurgents," Go said. "They're hidden throughout the city. There's going to be outbreaks, and just as we did in the Philippines, we have to concentrate our force and quickly mobilize to these areas."
One of Vollmer's most famous innovations — putting police first on bicycles and then in cars as mobile units that could respond quickly to crimes in a larger region — came from a similar strategy used in the war. And, Go argues, the imperialist and racist attitudes that led the Americans to invade the Philippines in the first place came home with Vollmer, too.
“The justification for U.S. colonialism was racialized,” Go said. “It was that whites are superior to nonwhites. The Filipinos are rebellious children. They are violent or prone to criminality. Now, when Vollmer applies these tactics to the U.S., the group of people that he thinks about, when he's thinking about criminals, are not white criminals.”
Prior to Vollmer's rise as chief, the Berkeley community had been lamenting the influx of Chinese from other parts of the state. In their view, they created a culture where 'crooks, gamblers, opium addicts' reigned. Vollmer, upon returning from the Philippines, was thereby urged by his friends in city hall to take the job, who reportedly told him, 'It will be a fighting job for whoever takes it. That's why we want you, Gus. You were a pretty good fighting man when you went up against those gugus [a racial epithet for Filipinos] over in the islands.'
Go goes on to write that one of Vollmer's first actions as police chief was to lead a mobile squad to raid Chinese-owned opium dens and gambling parlors.
Vollmer also brought back intelligence gathering techniques and crime mapping, which led to over-policing certain neighborhoods. Beyond these concrete tactics, Vollmer believed the military was a good model for policing, that it would help professionalize the force. He pushed for policemen to wear uniforms, to be organized in ranks, and created police academies modeled on military training academies. He was also interested in modernizing the force by implementing new technologies like radios in squad cars, fingerprinting and lie detector tests.
Police Maintain Power Structures
Vollmer is revered in policing circles for ushering in the Professional Era of policing. He was systematic, methodical and wrote about his ideas copiously. But he also helped to mold the modern police force in the image of the military, both in tactics and mindsets. While fighting in the Philippines he learned an "us versus them" mentality, which he applied to U.S citizens back home. On top of that, the power structure Vollmer worked to enforce was racist and always has been, says Perfecta Oxholm.
“Since police forces were created in the United States, there's been a model for the white population, or the population that would come to know itself as white, and then the racialized other,” Oxholm explained. “And that group is different in every location.”
In the American South, the first police forces were slave patrols. In the Northeast, when Irish and German immigrants were moving to the U.S and bringing their cultural practices around alcohol with them, the police cracked down. In the west, the groups without power were Native American, Mexican and Asian people, often of Chinese ancestry.
“What Vollmer did is just continue that model with new means,” Oxholm said.
So, Can Modern Policing Be Traced Back to Vollmer?
In some ways, yes. He helped militarize the police long before they had access to military-grade weaponry, armor and tanks. The reforms Vollmer modeled in Berkeley soon spread across the country, where many other veterans of wars had become policemen. And, Vollmer saw merit in eugenics — a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of the human population with selective breeding — for fighting crime.* When he helped start a criminology department at UC Berkeley, eugenics was part of the curriculum.
And while Vollmer may not have invented the tear gas that police use on protesters today, he did embrace new technologies for policing. He also laid a respectable, bureaucratic foundation for police departments that legitimized much of what came after.
In a speech delivered to an audience of police, Vollmer said, “For years, ever since Spanish-American War days, I’ve studied military tactics and used them to good effect in rounding up crooks. After all we’re conducting a war, a war against the enemies of society.”
Vollmer retired from the Berkeley Police Department in 1932. Over his several decades of service he did a lot to transform policing. He also garnered a lot of press coverage, which helped his ideas spread. He served as the president of the International Association of Police Chiefs and is said to have advised the FBI on intelligence gathering.
Toward the end of his life, Vollmer was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and cancer. Friends report he was in a lot of pain. On Nov. 4, 1955, he told his housekeeper, "I'm going to shoot myself. Call the Berkeley police." Then he stepped outside and did so.
There’s a peak in the East Bay hills named for Vollmer. It commemorates his role as one of the first directors of the East Bay Regional Parks District and his commitment to the outdoors. But recently the Berkeley City Council wrote a letter to the East Bay Regional Parks District requesting they change the name because of Vollmer’s history with eugenics.
If you are interested in reading more about August Vollmer, he was a prolific writer and saved his correspondence. There's also a biography of his life and work.