Berkeley police officers in 1925

As Berkeley gets ready to swear in Michael K. Meehan on Thursday as the city’s new police chief, perhaps it is appropriate to take a look back at the city’s very first chief. After all, he is credited with modernizing American policing.

Not many people know about August Vollmer, but when he was alive he was one of the most famous men in the country. While serving as Berkeley’s chief of police from 1909-1931, (he was marshal from 1905-1909) Vollmer introduced numerous concepts that transformed policing into what it is today.

August Vollmer

When Vollmer came into office, police officers were known more for their brutality and corruption than their crime-solving skills. Gambling and opium parlors operated openly in Berkeley because the owners paid off city officials. Vollmer, who only had a sixth grade education, banned graft and gifts, and instituted a series of reforms that are credited with transforming policing into a modern profession. Vollmer:

  • Was the first chief to put officers on bicycles, (1910) then on motorcycles (1911) and then in patrol cars (1913) and then put radio communications in the cars. 1928)
  • Created a centralized police records system, one of the first in the US (1906)
  • Was the first chief in the US to insist his department use blood, fiber, and soil analysis to solve crimes. (1907) Vollmer’s emphasis on scientific investigation spurred the creation of numerous crime laboratories around the state.
  • Started the world’s first police school where officers could learn about the laws of evidence. (1907)
  • Was the first to use radio communications between officers (1914)
  • Formed the first juvenile division in the US (1914)
  • Was the first police chief to require officers get college degrees
  • Pioneered the teaching of criminal justice classes by starting a program at UC Berkeley (1916)
  • Outlawed the use of the “third degree,” meaning police officers could no longer brutalize detainees to extract information.
  • Was the first chief to use the lie detector in investigations (1921)
  • Was one of the first to use fingerprints to identify suspects
  • Vollmer hired one of the nation’s first African-American cops (1919) and the first female cop (1925)
  • Suggested that the role of police is to prevent crime rather than just to solve it. To understand the criminal mind better, Vollmer visited the jail each morning to talk to prisoners and corresponded extensively with men he had put in prison. (Unfortunately, he burned all these letters before his death. The rest of his correspondence is in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.)
  • Opposed capital punishment
Early lie detector

Vollmer became so associated with police reform that he took extended leaves of absence from Berkeley to help out other departments. He helped reorganize the police departments in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, Dallas and in Cuba.

Vollmer was fond of the outdoors and was an early supporter of the creation of the East Bay Regional Park District. Vollmer Peak, also known as Bald Peak, is named in his honor.

On November 4, 1955, at the age of 79, and suffering from cancer, Vollmer committed suicide at his Berkeley home.

For more historic photos of the Berkeley police department, click here.

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...