THE GREAT INNOVATOR
By Kerry Ross Boren
Modern law enforcement and investigative officers utilize patrol vehicles, radio communications, crime labs, lie detectors, fingerprints, computerized records systems, beat analysis, community relations, bicycle patrols, and much more, with little regard to their origins. Even more surprisingly, all of these innovative methods of law enforcement and criminology were the product of one ingenious mind - that of August Vollmer. There was never his like before, nor has any matched him since.
August Vollmer was born in New Orleans, Lousiana, in 1876. His only formal education, beyond grade school, was a vocational course in book-keeping, typing and shorhand that he took at New Orleans Academy. His family moved to Berkeley, California, in 1891 when he was fifteen. In 1894 Vollmer opened a coal and feed store with a friend and was active in the formation of a volunteer five department.
In 1898, with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Vollmer enlisted in the army and served for a year in the Philippines. He took part in river patrols and participated in 25 engagements with the enemy. Returning home, he worked as a letter carrier in Berkeley for four years - until he was approached to run for town marshal, inasmuch as he had voiced an opinion that the police force should be run with the operational skills of the army. His backers included his friend Richardson, editor of the daily newspaper and later governor of California from 1922-26; George Schmidt, postmaster; both were important members of the Republican Party. Although completely self-educated, Vollmer won the election by a 3-to-1 majority. The year was 1905; he was twenty-nine.
Vollmer inherited a department that was in shambles. Violence by hoodlums in West Berkeley was so bad that Southern Pacific transcontinental trains refused to stop there. As an opponent of capital punishment and brutality against criminals, Vollmer believed in attacking the social roots of the problems. Although he himself had only six years of schooling, he made education a top priority among his recruits. He had clear ideas of what he was looking for: "The policeman's job is the highest calling in the world. The men who do that job should be the finest men. They should be the best educated. They should be college graduates. That's what policemen should be. And what are they? Dumbbells." He spent his life trying to change that.
In 1908 Vollmer started the Berkeley Police School, taught by himself and an Oakland police inspector; subjects included first aid, photography, and course in sanitation laws and criminal evidence, far ahead of its time.
By 1930, recruits received 312 hours of work within police school, which by then included technical police subjects, criminal law and procedure, police psychology, criminal identification, and police organization and administration. August Vollmer taught at summer sessions at the University between 1916 and 1932; after retirement he was appointed as research professor at Berkeley's political science department.
August Vollmer reached more audiences than any other officer in history. He developed ties to academic communities and wrote at length about policing. In 1919 he wrote an article for the Police Journal entitled. "The Policeman as a Social Worker." He believed in the long time use of psychiatry to explain the motive of criminalogy. He wrote a book entitled "The Criminal" in 1949, the culmination of a lifetime of study in this area of interest.
Vollmer tried other innovations, making Berkeley the first American city to put all its officers on bicycles and later in automobiles. The department was also the first to test radio communications, to develop a finger-printing program, and to stress crime prevention. Vollmer established the naton's first scientific crime lab in 1916, and was among the first to use women as police officers. He encouraged the development of the polygraph (lie detector), first invented by "college cop" John Larson at Berkeley - who later regretted it - and developed by Leonard Keeler (son of noted Berkeley poet, Charles Keeler).
Vollmer's innovative work did not go unnoticed. He was called on to develop major police reforms for such cities as Los Angeles (he served as Chief of Police there during 1921-22), Chicago, Dallas, and Havana (Cuba), and to head the national Commission on Law Enforcement under President Hoover.
August Vollmer opposed the "Third Degree" method of interrogation, and was fond of saying (referring to the public), "Kill them with kindness." He was athletic, compassionate, honest, creative and intelligent, with a very commanding presence. He detested prejudice and encouraged people to use their abilities fully. He maintained great relations with the press, and did not care about taking credit; he opposed force in gaining confessions and prohibited his men from taking any gratuities. He was a close friend of Earl Warren, District Attorney who was famed for "gang-busting" in California; later they set up police education programs together in state colleges. He innovated programs for prevention of juvenile delinquency.
During August Vollmer's tenure as Berkeley's Chief of Police, from 1905 until his retirement in 1932, his procedure remained the same. Friday meetings were often preceded in the police squad room by a short boxing match with the Chief before the meeting started. At noon-time he walked from City Hall to the Berkeley waterfront. He swam a good deal. At Regional Park, a hill is named Vollmer Peak in his honor.
August Vollmer was liked by all who knew him: officers, the press, the public, and even the criminals for the most part. He was a favorite men, women, children, and ethnic minorities. He spoke fluent Spanish and was a prolific writer and correspondent.
Vollmer once stated:
"You never can tell what a man is able to do, but even though I recommend ten, and nine of them may disappoint me and fail, the tenth one may surprise me. That percentage is good enough for me, because it is in developing people that we make real progress in our own society."
But there was the professional, no-nonsense side to him, as well. During the early 1930's he reorganized the corrupt Kansas City Police Department, simultaneously visiting the 12th Street Burlesque Theater. He was selected to work on the Wickersham Commission Report in Chicago and could pick out the gangsters in that city on sight.
Although he had only sixth grade education, August Vollmer was a full professor before 1932 at the University of Chicago, a position which was terminated only for health reasons in 1938. In 1929 he wrote a lengthy and highly informative work called "Job Analysis" which was never published, but which became the definitive model of police job description.
Vollmer's life was filled with exciting and interesting events, too many and too diverse to be illustrated here. One example, however, was his clash with the International Workers of the World (IWW). In 1914, the IWW members planned to travel from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to rally for their cause. Worried about possible violence, the police took the militants' weapons and placed them in a sealed railroad car. The IWW members then proceeded on their journey without incident.
August Vollmer married twice. His first wife, Lydia Sturtevant, was a concert and stage singer, who had a studio on Shattuck Avenue. Vollmer himself loved the theater and was also an active member of the Elks Club. His wife, whom he married in 1925, was Millicent "Pat", of whom he was very fond. Vollmer was a Unitarian.
Following his retirement in 1932, August Vollmer remained extremely active as a writer and lecturer. He was a prolific correspondent, maintaining communicaation with hundreds of individuals world-wide. He wrote to presidents and paupers, children and criminals, the professonals and the curious; he neglected no one. He entertained and he visited. He had great regard for people; he would not smoke in front of others, especially women, in order to not offend them.
Even after his retirement, Vollmer maintained contact with criminals, gangsters, and juvenile offenders. He knew Capone, and he knew the neighbor kid who shoplifted, and he treated them as equals to himself, looking down on neither, helping both. He continued to lobby for rehabilitaton in the corrections system, believing that punishment bred only deeper criminal behavior. he would, and frequently did, travel miles out of his way, at his own expense, to talk a professional criminal or an errant youth out of a life of crime. He never condemned them; merely offered alternatives.
Probably the best example of Vollmer's influence concerns one of this nation's most flagrant criminal personalities - Etta Place, consort of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. This engmatic and mysterious woman has remained elusive until the recent discovery of her autobiography written under her pseudonym in the late 1920's.
Etta Place had participated in numerous bank and train robberies, both in North and South America, as a bandit queen associated with the Wild Bunch. Following this career, she had gone on to become perhaps the most infamous woman criminal in America, and on other continents as well. By her own admission, there was little hope that she would ever reform. In her autobiography, she writes:
I do not know about others, but I am convinced that prison never reformed me. My only reaction, especially under an unjust sentence, was to want to be revenged on society. Jail only delayed the time when I would want to quit. Like other business people, I did not want to get out of harness while I still thought I wa fit, and white my competitor was threatening me. Crime never occurred to me as sin...I have never suffered from qualms of conscience. I have had no regrets - except when I was caught. I am not really sorry I was a criminal.
In 1926, Etta Place was sentenced to the Detroit House of Correction. "Of all the jails I ever struck," she wrote, "that was the worst. Blacks and whites had to sleep together on the floor, on straw mattresses. This is the place where Loretta Lee, the girl bandit, died from exposure." In a short time, Etta Place succumbed to exposure, and became critically ill, eventually ending up in the prison hospital. In her autobiography, she writes:
I forgot to say that I was visited by August Vollmer, the Chief of Police, of Berkeley Calif., while I was in the hospital. I speak of him elsewhere as the good-hearted bull, who was practical enough to say something more than merely, "Go straight. It doesn't pay. You can't win," etcc. He showed me one way to make an honest living. He put the bug into my head to at least try to write for a living.
Accompanying him was...(a) moving picture director for Cecil de Mille. They came several times with beautiful flowers. It was the kindness and courtest of...(August Vollmer), which caused me to make another try to get on the band wagon, with most of the people in society.
Vollmer used his influence to guide Etta Place from a criminal career to a literary one; she wrote articles for major newspapers and assisted in making motion pictures. There is no record that this notorious woman criminal ever committed another crime after Vollmer's visit turned her direction.
Did August Vollmer's innovations work? History speaks for itself. During his tenure as Chief of Police, Berkeley remained the most crime-free city in America. Following his retirement, and especially after his death, the Berkeley police department's vaunted reputation came crashing down during the tumultuous 60's, as anti-war protests, People's Park confrontations, and riots turned the city upside down. The basically conservative department proved unable to handle the abrupt changes in Berkeley society. The city council responded to the unrest with an increase in Berkeley's police force, but the new officers' lack of experience led to an escalation of the conflicts between young people and the "pigs." Berkeley's police responded to the confrontations with much force and verbal abuse, particularly against blacks and anyone with long hair and jeans. All that August Vollmer had innovated was undone almost overnight, and today, as though no lesson had been learned, Berkeley has one of the highest crime rates in the nation. In 1987, California's LIttle Hoover Commission named UC Berkeley - where Vollmer taught - the "Number one campus for cime in America."
Perhaps it wa merciful that Vollmer did not live to see it. He contracted cancer of the throat, as well as the beginning stages of Parkinson's disease, during the early 1950's. This extraordinary man took inordinate measures during his final days: he willed his body to the medical center of the University of California - there was no funeral and no memorial service. He donated his books to the Police Department and his papers to the Bancroft Library. His last act of selflessness was to utterly destroy his voluminous correspondence to protect the privacy of his many correspondents.
On November 4, 1955, at the age of seventy-nine, August Vollmer the great innovator, committed suicide.
Berkeley Historical Society
August vollmer, Crime Fighter, by Alfred E. Parker
A Companion to California, by James D. Hart, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1978 p. 466.
Alameda County: California Crossroads, by Ruth Hendricks Willard
Berkeley Inside/Out, by Don Pitcher, Heyday Books, Berkeley, pp. 133-34.
August Vollmer, by the Regents of the University of California, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, Calif. 2 vols.
Autobiography of Etta Place (written under a pseudonym,) possession of author.