WILSON, O. W. (police)


Orlando Winfield Wilson (1900-1972), police chief, professor, Chicago police superintendent, and author, was born in Veblen, South Dakota, of Norwegian descent (Vraalson, his family name, was changed to Wilson when he was a boy). His father, a lawyer, took a keen interest in all of his children, expecting excellence from each of them. Therefore, studiousness and respect for learning permeated the family atmosphere. Orlando graduated from San Diego High School in California, where Ole Wilson had moved his family a few years before. Then he entered the University of California at Berkeley, obtaining his B.A. degree in 1924 with a major in criminology. While at the university he worked as a patrolman with the Berkeley Police Department from May 1921 to April 1925. His police chief was August Vollmer, considered by many authorities the top police mind of his day. In fact, it was Vollmer who influenced Wilson in his choice of criminology as a career. No young man interested in criminology could have had a better start in life, with the educational advantage of having studied at UC Berkeley, having Vollmer as mentor, and with police professionalism on the upswing.

Less than a year out of college, Wilson was appointed police chief of Fullerton, a small southern California community. But he lasted only a few months in the job, mainly because some of his academic notions did not sit well with the citizenry. Once in a public address he advocated birth control as a means of lessening crime, in keeping with the ”concentric circle” theory of crime; that is, more population, more crime; less population, less crime, radiating outward from a congested center of law-breaking. Even for California Wilson’s ideas were a bit radical and after pressure from the police committee he resigned due to ”lack of administrative experience.” For the next two years he worked as an investigator for the Pacific Finance Corporation. It was dull employment from which he sought leave given the first opportunity. Soon he got his chance. Not forgetting his protege, August Vollmer recommended Wilson as a replacement for the dismissed police chief of Wichita, Kansas. Times were bad there; scandal involving bootlegging operations gripped the puritanical city. Wilson hesitated, recalling his failure in Fullerton, but Vollmer reassured him that he could succeed in Wichita.

He heeded his former chief and in March 1928 accepted the position. What with crime to fight and organizational changes to make, he had few spare moments for theorizing, his Fullerton nemesis. Five years later he rejuvenated the department by introducing plainly marked police cars, lie detectors, and mobile crime laboratories; harking back to his recent youth, he hired college students as part-time policemen, among other innovations, and Wichita was on its way to stringent law and order.

Wilson compiled an enviable record during his years there, but his outstanding performance as chief eventually cost him his job. He enforced the vice laws too vigorously, thus cramping the style of Wichita racketeers, so he had to go. Two city commissioners, in league with the vice lords, rode him hard, conjuring up every possible charge against him. In a letter to August Vollmer, Wilson disclosed what the city commissioners planned to do to him if he stayed:

1. Have my salary slashed.

2. Have the commission order the discontinuance of certain police activities, such as the maintenance of records.

3. The appointment of a disloyal subordinate officer as assistant chief, with complete control over police personnel.

4. Appointment of the same men as director of public safety and over police and fire.

5. An investigation of the department with a view of raising sufficient stench to justify ordering my suspension and leaving me simmering on the pan without salary until I was tired out.

He acquiesced and on May 15, 1939, left Wichita on leave of absence, his formal resignation to follow later.

Wilson was not left to wander long. The Public Administration Service in Chicago hired him to survey municipal police departments and to write papers on police administration. To his dismay he discovered that in Peoria, Illinois; Hartford, Connecticut; Huntington, West Virginia; and San Antonio, Texas, the police bent to political will as much as in Wichita. While he was on the road with his surveys, plans were under way to attract him to teach at his alma mater, UC Berkeley. Once again August Vollmer was his guiding light, convincing the president of the university that O. W. Wilson knew more about police administration than anyone else available. On July 24, 1939, Wilson accepted a tenured position as full professor with a reduced teaching load, time for consultative work, and the freedom to reshape the academic program. Moreover, the university allowed him to continue his work for the Public Administration Service. In January 1943 World War II interrupted his busy schedule and tested his abilities all the more. He entered the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel in the corps of military police, serving as chief public safety officer in Italy and England. The war over, he was discharged in November 1946, having earned the rank of colonel, the Bronze Star, and the Legion of Merit. He did not return home right away but remained in Germany as the chief public safety officer in charge of denazification activities in the U.S. zone. Enforcing the regulations to the letter of the law was his trademark. He liked military life and leaned toward reenlisting, but by the next year he was back at Berkeley teaching police administration.

Wilson’s second career at Berkeley had its ups and downs. From 1950 to 1960 he served as dean of the School of Criminology, during which time he successfully fought off efforts to relegate police studies to a minor academic status. Instead, he raised the program to an unprecedented level and made the school one of the foremost in the nation. He did this in spite of having to parry attacks from his fellow professors because he did not hold the Ph.D. degree, and from students because he was a poor lecturer. Always terse in his public and written comments, he was more a man of action than one of words. Wilson escaped the petty in-fighting at Berkeley whenever he visited various police departments to conduct reorganization surveys. Like August Vollmer before him, he crisscrossed the United States and beyond, sizing up local police conditions and recommending qualified colleagues to fill vacant positions. Known far and wide for his acuity as a police consultant, he was to put into practice every bit of his knowledge in the coming years.

In 1960 Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley named Wilson chairman of a five-man committee to choose a new police commissioner for the Windy City. The heat was on after city newspapers revealed that several policemen had aided and abetted a burglary ring. More than one hundred persons were considered for the office with the surprising result that O. W. Wilson, interrogator of the contenders, was finally selected. He took the job, but only after securing a promise that the police force would be free from political control. He then resigned his deanship at UC Berkeley, the university honoring him with the title of professor emeritus. The immediate changes he made in the Chicago Police Department were unpopular to say the least. He cut the number of police districts from thirty-eight to twenty-one, thus severing ties of favoritism between some police and criminal parties in certain neighborhoods. He established the Internal Investigation Division, whose main purpose was to uncover police corruption. He more than doubled the number of civilian employees to handle clerical duties, thereby releasing about one thousand regular policemen for patrol duty. He installed a $2 million modern police radio clock and doubled the size of the patrol car fleet. Other of his adjustments were equally hard to live with at first, but in the end greatly strengthened the department.

Wilson continued to do the unexpected. When the Reverend Martin Luther

King, Jr., came to Chicago in 1966, having announced beforehand that he would lay bare housing discrimination in one of white America’s mighty cities, he was invited to police headquarters to talk. Of all things, the two strong-willed men discussed police protection for King and his people, not police harassment. Later King acknowledged that Wilson had treated him more than fairly, unlike Southern police. Also in that year one of the worst crimes of the century occurred in Chicago. Eight student nurses were murdered at a residence maintained by the South Chicago Community Hospital. Wilson’s police were swift off the mark and the next day arrested a twenty-four-year-old itinerant seaman named Richard Franklin Speck, whose left arm bore the tattoo ”Born to Raise Hell.” Wilson fingered the right man, but because he insisted that only Speck could have done the deed some legal authorities criticized him for ”hanging the suspect” without a fair trial. Ironically, just a few months earlier in an article written for Family Week, he had said: ”One of the problems that we, as police, face is when sympathy for the unfortunate merges into favoritism for the criminal. . . . In this country, tolerance for wrongdoers has turned into a fad. What we need is some intolerance toward criminal behavior.”

On his sixty-seventh birthday he retired from the Chicago police force, stating in a letter to Mayor Daley, ”It is my belief that the programs initiated slightly more than seven years ago for the reorganization of the police department are fully established.” As befitted him, he was overly modest in assessing his accomplishments in Chicago, a city notorious for its haphazard law enforcement. But for all of his striking success he did display some faults. His biographer, William J. Bopp, explains:

O. W. Wilson never questioned the idea that officers must be coerced, controlled, directed, and threatened before they would exert an effort to achieve the department’s objectives. He instituted no job enrichment programs, no participatory management techniques. … He ruled by fiat, instead of persuading his officers of the rightness of reform. … It may well be that policemen will not act democratically in the community until they are treated democratically in police headquarters. Wilson was not a democratic leader.

Wilson wrote a number of topics, articles, and pamphlets during his checkered career, all of which added substantially to the police literature. He saw his best known topic, Police Administration (McGraw-Hill 1950, 1963), through a third edition, with Roy C. McLaren as coauthor; it appeared the year of his death (1972). Married twice, he fathered three children. A stroke ended his life, his last years having been spent in Poway, California, an idyllic retreat far from the ingratitude of Wichita and the hustle of Chicago.

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