August Vollmer (1876-1955), father of modern professional policing in the United States, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Orphaned as a child, he was educated in Germany before returning to the United States and settling in the San Francisco Bay area. After service in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, which included two highly publicized acts of heroism, he was elected marshal of Berkeley, California, in 1905. From that point on his career never waned. In 1907 he was elected president of the California Police Chiefs Association; from 1909 to 1932 he served as chief of police for Berkeley; in 1922 he accepted the presidency of the International Association of Chiefs of Police; and from 1932 until his death he was an educator, a professor of police administration at the University of California. In between he reorganized the San Diego Police Department (1915), the Los Angeles Police Department (1923-1925), the Detroit Police Department (1925), the Havana (Cuba) Police (1926), the police agencies of Chicago and Kansas City (1929), the Minneapolis Police Department (1930), the Santa Barbara Police Department (1936), the police of Syracuse, New York (1943), of Dallas (1944), and of Portland, Oregon (1947). Moreover, in 1931 the Wickersham Commission retained him, and his Report on Police contributed in no small part to the successful campaign to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) and the Volstead Act.
Vollmer was an innovator in an extremely conservative profession. He was an early advocate of college education for police officers and other unheard-of measures, such as probation for first offenders and the decriminalization of victimless crimes. He considered crime prevention a priority for police and opposed capital punishment. He instituted an in-service training program of such rigor and effectiveness that it was copied by numerous police agencies in the United States and other countries. In 1921 Vollmer introduced the first “lie detector” to be put to practical police use, and for many years was the sole police executive to endorse its use as an investigative tool. Polygraph pioneers Clarence D. Lee, John Larson, and Leonarde Keeler acknowledged their debt to him for employing and defending the new device. As early as 1922 he inaugurated a single fingerprint classification system and a simple but effective method of classifying handwriting specimens. He also initiated the modus operandi approach to criminal investigation. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the Berkeley police laboratory became the model and training ground for police laboratory technicians throughout the country.
Vollmer’s dedication to stringent recruitment standards, high levels of integrity, and freedom from political interference were unpopular with his contemporaries. But the Berkeley Police Department soon became the darling of progressive journalists and academics. In succeeding decades Berkeley police officers such as O. W. Wilson, V. A. Leonard, John P. Kenney, and many others were recruited for high-ranking positions in other police agencies and were appointed to head up the many police science curricula that burgeoned on America’s university campuses in the 1940s and 1950s. Second only to J. Edgar Hoover in public relations expertise, Vollmer insisted on complete cooperation with the news media. He seemed always to be promoting the police through contributions to both professional and popular journals, lectures to college classes and to a variety of business and professional clubs, and presentations describing Berkeley police initiatives and programs. He never tired of delineating the future of policing.
Unlike J. Edgar Hoover, Vollmer was at home with academic criminologists and he respected them. He conducted a voluminous correspondence with such leaders of American criminology as Edwin Sutherland, Sheldon Glueck, Paul Tappan, Thorsten Sellin, and Martin Neumeyer. As founder and president of the organization now known as the American Society of Criminology (which presents annually the August Vollmer Award to a distinguished criminologist), he extended his influence considerably. A faithful student of scientific management and public administration, he ceaselessly reeducated himself.
Vollmer authored or coauthored a number of topics, all now out of print but many of which are still footnoted in the contemporary police literature. Clearly stated in his writings is his plea for centralization and consolidation of police units and services. To this day, his cherished wish for integrated policing is still elusive. On the national level centralization of criminal identification files and crime statistics has been realized, but the consolidation of many local police units into larger, more responsive law enforcement agencies has not come to pass. In 1955, weary and almost blind, Vollmer shot himself in the right temple to end his life.
The Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, is the repository of the Vollmer Collection and of the oral history August Vollmer: Pioneer in Professionalism. Included in the collection are Vollmer’s private correspondence, his files from the Berkeley Police Department days, his unpublished manuscripts, and taped interviews with Vollmer colleagues and proteges, such as O. W. Wilson, John D. Holstrom, V. A. Leonard, Willard E. Schmidt, Thomas P. Hunter, William F. Dean, Gene B. Woods, Milton Chernin, Austin MacCormick, Spencer D. Parratt, and Donal E.J. MacNamara.