Carolina Academic Press, 2017, 804 pp., $80.00
Halfway through August Vollmer: The Father of American Policing, author Willard M. Oliver describes a striking scene from the life of one of America’s most famous police chiefs. In 1913 Vollmer and a few fellow policemen cornered a suspect in a coal yard who had just escaped booking at the Berkeley Police Department. The man began clambering over a mountain of coal, pausing only to lob chunks of debris at the officers. Two of them immediately drew their guns, but Vollmer angrily ordered them to lower their weapons before climbing after the suspect himself. He did not touch his pistol once as he reached the top of the pile and tackled the escapee, even after the man succeeded in clobbering him with a heavy piece of coal, leaving a gash on the side of his face that streamed blood as they tumbled back to the ground.
After returning the suspect to police custody, Vollmer’s subordinates chided him during the department’s weekly “crab session” for putting his own life in danger. As Oliver explains, “Vollmer accepted the officers’ criticism, but did not change his mind that he had treated the suspect fairly and with respect.” Four years into his tenure as chief of police in Berkeley, Vollmer was modeling his remarkable conviction in preserving the health and wellbeing of lawbreakers in police custody, in sharp contrast to the violence and apathy that had marked many American police forces since their institutionalization over the course of the 19th century.
The anecdote from the coal yard is just one of a legion of examples Oliver marshals throughout his 700-page biography to justify Vollmer’s moniker as “The Father of American Policing.” To Oliver, a former cop and professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University, Vollmer is nothing short of a hero in the annals of police history. And in many ways, one is tempted to agree with him. Vollmer’s thoughtful approach to policing reads like a breath of fresh air during a summer saturated with appalling stories of police brutality. One wonders if Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor would be household names today if America’s officers were trained to adopt Vollmer’s attitude. But this question itself raises disturbing implications that Oliver’s biography ultimately fails to address, despite its monumental scope and depth of research. If Vollmer is truly “The Father of American Policing,” then his children have either inherited few of his virtues, or worse, only his most insidious tendencies.
August “Gus” Vollmer was born in Louisiana in 1876. The son of German immigrants, Vollmer split his childhood between New Orleans, Bavaria, and San Francisco before settling with his mother and siblings in Berkeley, California. Although Vollmer aspired to be a stenographer, he never earned more than an elementary education, abandoning his studies early to begin working in his mother’s store (his father having died when he was eight). Nevertheless, Vollmer was a voracious reader and prodigious autodidact, two qualities that would serve him well in his mission to reform policing in the United States.
Oliver notes that Vollmer’s entry to the profession was almost accidental. After fighting in the Philippines as a volunteer during the Spanish-American War, Vollmer spent time assuming police duties in Manila as part of the U.S. Army’s occupation of the island. He then found work as a letter carrier in Berkeley upon his honorable discharge. In a scene that could have been stolen from a superhero origin story, he once abandoned his mail route to leap aboard a runaway flatcar that had broken loose from a side-rail, pulling its brake just seconds before it slammed into a platform at Berkeley Station full of trains and passengers. This extraordinary act attracted the notice of Berkeley Republicans, who recruited Vollmer to run for Town Marshal—a position he won handily thanks to his new reputation as a courageous and cool-headed young man.
Securing the election had been easy, but Vollmer knew he was accepting a difficult job. Although many recent studies on the history of American policing have brought needed attention to slavery’s disastrous influence on the institution in the South, Oliver instead highlights the political corruption that infected nearly all police departments as they consolidated in cities across the United States between 1844 and 1861. “Regardless of where they were established,” he notes, “police departments were not created as a means of protecting and serving the public, but rather, as a means of protecting and serving the local political machines.” Depending on patronage for selection and advancement, turn-of-the-century policemen were largely characterized, in Vollmer’s words, by “incivility, ignorance, brutality and graft.” The result was decades of violence against low-income citizens, targeted campaigns against immigrants, African-Americans, and other minorities, and frequent miscarriages of justice. Vollmer himself alluded to an unpleasant encounter with a particularly “rough, tough, hardboiled, club-wielding” cop as a boy in San Francisco, which undoubtedly colored his approach to his new role.
Despite this sordid history, Vollmer embraced the responsibilities of his position with a strenuous zeal that would have made Teddy Roosevelt proud. Oliver carefully catalogues Vollmer’s early exploits as “Boy Marshal,” which ranged from catching international criminals, to breaking up gambling dens, to coordinating care for the 20,000 refugees who flooded Berkeley following the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. In addition to executing the duties of his office, Vollmer also began experimenting with reforms. He reorganized his department’s haphazard record systems, put officers on bicycles (and later in cars), and established a call box system across the city to assist police in responding more quickly and efficiently to crimes. Although he often faced ridicule when he unveiled a new initiative, it usually did not take long to demonstrate the effectiveness of his policies and shift popular opinion in his favor. And when Berkeley finally transitioned from a town to a city in 1909, he was swiftly appointed chief of police of the growing municipality.
While Oliver flexes his skills as a researcher well in reconstructing the most pivotal moments in Vollmer’s life and career, he does not trace the evolution of Vollmer’s policing philosophy as incisively. Beyond recounting a formative run-in with police in his youth, Oliver is content to rely on repeated assertions of Vollmer’s unimpeachable moral character to explain his immunity to graft and fixation on improving his department. It’s as if Stan Lee had forgotten to devise the transformative moment when Peter Parker is reminded by his dying uncle that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Instead, Oliver cuts almost straight to Vollmer as a hero fully formed.
Luckily, Vollmer left a voluminous repository of writings. Arguably one of the book’s greatest contributions to the field of police history is the catalogue of Vollmer’s work found in the bibliography, alongside a list of repositories housing his correspondence and oral histories taken from the men and women who worked with him. As his protégé O.W. Wilson recalled, Vollmer once summarized his professional credo to a group of officers thusly:
You prevent people from doing wrong; that’s the mission of a policeman. I’ll admire you more if in the first year 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, you’re to advise them.
In this short statement, Vollmer articulated transformative principles for policing. Oliver does note that Vollmer was influenced by his self-directed reading of 18th-century legal theorist Cesare Beccaria, whose work inspired him to campaign against any use of force that went beyond the minimum necessary to capture criminals and enforce the law. He was particularly disdainful of what policemen commonly referred to as “the third degree,” or the practice of assaulting criminals once they were in police custody to extract information or confessions. Among what his officers referred to as his many “Vollmerisms” lay a maxim that he took very seriously: “Never hit a person except in self-defense; if you do, you have just resigned.”
More than tempering the improper use of force, Vollmer was radically changing the scope of policework. However, Oliver doesn’t quite examine what Vollmer meant when he centered the prevention of crime as a policeman’s mission, which is odd, because it occupied much of Vollmer’s writing. Vollmer himself summed it up in one of the first papers he presented before the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1919, titled “The Policeman as a Social Worker.” Instead of concerning themselves solely with the aftereffects of crime, he argued repeatedly in his written work, police should be studiously monitoring their “beat” and actively involved in coordinating various social services to address problems in the community before criminality could take root—the kind of “bundling” of police duties hotly debated today. He was particularly concerned with the care and welfare of children, whom he believed were best positioned to benefit from early interventions.
His confidence in the role government could play in addressing social ills is a primary example of Vollmer’s progressive bent and helps to explain many of his reforms. So does what Oliver characterized as his “almost blind faith” in science. As his career blossomed over the course of the 1920s, Vollmer continued to incorporate the latest advancements in law enforcement technology in the departments he managed, such as fingerprinting, crime labs, lie detectors, radios, and mobile divisions. He led the charge to create a national bureau of criminal records and popularized the use of surveys to improve police departments across the country. At the same time, he was also actively involved in setting up some of the first police training programs in the United States.
If modern police were expected to assume the multifaceted role Vollmer envisioned, they needed significant instruction and preparation. As he put it, “Stupid, hot-headed, sullen, cranky, slow, slovenly, unreliable, and brutal” cops had dominated the profession long enough. When Vollmer transitioned to teaching in the 1930s, Oliver recounts how he designed and implemented a demanding two-year Police Administration degree at major universities in California and Chicago that included courses in psychology, chemistry, political science, sociology, bacteriology, first aid, criminal law, and government. He also instituted testing requirements for police recruits, based off the “Army Alpha” exam employed by the U.S. military, and made a point of hiring college graduates—a practice that led a newspaper to once derisively snark, “College boys being taken into a police department . . . what could we next expect from the freakish highbrow city of Berkeley!”
That wasn’t his only controversial decision. In another noteworthy passage, Oliver describes the fallout surrounding Vollmer’s recruitment of Walter Gordon, a recent graduate of the University of California Berkeley and one of the first black college athletes to be named All-American. When several officers complained that they did not want to work with a “Negro” and threatened to resign in protest, Vollmer calmly invited them to leave their badges on his desk on their way out, and fired those who engaged in prejudicial talk against Gordon. He also hired women for the force, although he circumscribed their role to working with juvenile offenders and female convicts. And although he opposed police unions, he fought tirelessly to raise police salaries. Recommending in a survey of the San Diego Police Department that they drastically cut positions to boost pay (an unexpected spin on “defunding the police”), Vollmer bluntly stated that “competent officials can only be secured and retained by offering salaries which will attract desirable men and women, after they have qualified by passing the necessary examinations.”
As evidence continues to mount of the racism, lax hiring and training standards, politics, and militarized, “us-versus-them” mentalities endemic in modern police departments, it’s hard not to read Oliver’s biography and marvel at how far policing has deviated from Vollmer’s vision. Where on earth did we go wrong?
The problem, however, is that Oliver is not telling the whole story.
It takes exactly 500 pages for Oliver to mention that Vollmer joined the American Eugenics Society in 1924.
Although he spends some time attempting to disentangle just what this meant for Vollmer’s worldview, one can’t help but feel somewhat misled. Exploring Vollmer’s essays on policing clearly demonstrates how an interest in eugenic theories is a crucial thread tying together his support for intelligence tests, “preventative” policing, and police involvement in coordinating social services, particularly for young people. Even though Vollmer held a somewhat ambiguous position in the nature versus nurture debate—if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be interested in improving conditions for children in the first place—the decision to sequester this element of his thought to the book’s conclusion is impossible to justify. Wrestling with Vollmer’s capacity to empathetically articulate sensible community treatment for drug addicts (a condition he believed should not be punished by law) in the same article where he contemplated measures to prevent “defectives from reproducing their kind” is what separates history from hagiography. Moreover, investigating the sources and impact of Vollmer’s prejudice both sheds light on the darker side of progressivism’s history and provides helpful context for many of the debates we are currently having on the intractability of police bias and the unintended consequences of turning over police functions entirely to social workers.
In a similar vein, Oliver also chooses not to interrogate the unpleasant legacies that Vollmer’s military background may have seeded in many of his reforms. He instead rolls approvingly through descriptions of Vollmer’s innovations, such as his mobile police units, which in Oliver’s own telling Vollmer created in an effort to treat robberies as “insurgent strikes, not unlike the insurgent enemy he faced while serving in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.” Although it is unlikely that Vollmer would have approved of the distressing scenes the nation witnessed this summer between protestors and policemen decked from head to toe in Kevlar, understanding the rise of the “Warrior Cop” depends on scholars honestly identifying the earliest moments when leading police figures began blurring the line between fellow citizens and enemy combatants.
It is natural to search for heroes, particularly when one is part of a discipline as perpetually maligned as policing. But the ontological implications of the label can be dangerous. Individual actions may be heroic, but leaders—fathers—are human. Biographers cannot allow themselves to let admiration, however sincerely felt, obfuscate their subjects’ less admirable moments. We are now in the midst of a complicated national reckoning over the nature of memory, heroism, and the shape and purpose of policing. Vollmer’s legacy is an important part of this conversation, but so is the unvarnished truth—and we’re going to need all the truth that we can get if we want to better understand what may have awed Vollmer about modern policing, what would have horrified him, and what that means for rebuilding this broken institution in our own time.