Oliver Pays Homage to the Father of America Policing

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New Book

Willard Oliver pays homage to August Vollmer, the Father of American Policing, in his latest book.

After 10 years of research and a bookcase full of documents, Professor Willard Oliver published a comprehensive biography of August Vollmer, known as the “Father of American Policing.”

Vollmer, the former police chief of Berkeley, CA, ushered in a new era of professionalism in policing, which led to the first criminology program at the University of California, Berkeley in 1916, the forerunner of criminal justice and criminology programs today.

“The very reason we are here today is because of Vollmer,” Oliver said.

In addition to promoting education for his officers, Vollmer is credited with modernizing local policing agencies by collaborating with others to launch the first free-standing police crime lab in Los Angeles and to introduce the polygraph exam as well as one-way radios in his department. Vollmer was the first to use hot spot policing in 1924 to target high crime areas, a popular practice not routinely used until the 1990s.

“He took others’ ideas and improved upon them,” said Oliver, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology “Early on, he put all his officers on bicycles to answer calls more quickly. When the automobile was introduced, all of his officers had cars to make them more mobile.”

Vollmer came from humble beginnings. After fighting in the Spanish American War, Vollmer was appointed a postal carrier in Berkeley. In 1904 while on his route, he stopped a runaway rail car before it plowed into a commuter train filled with people. Celebrated as a hero, Vollmer was urged to run for town marshal to replace the corrupt incumbent, who represented the old guard of politicized policing at the turn of the century. Vollmer was elected and then became police chief when the community adopted its city charter 1909. He also served a year as police chief in Los Angeles.
Oliver has been fascinated by Vollmer since a freshman in college at Radford University. After completing his book, A History of Crime and Justice in America, Oliver set out to read a biography of August Vollmer. All he could find was a short book, similar to the G-men series written for youth, from the 1960s. “Since I didn’t find one, I decided to write one,” Oliver said.

Oliver browsed news archives and found 17,000 listings for “August Vollmer.” He eventually ended up with 10,000 newspaper articles on Vollmer. He spent seven weeks at the library at the University of Berkeley, reading through Vollmer’s papers. He also spent days working at the Berkeley Police Department, sifting through historical records in the department.

The result is an 800-page book written in popular biographical style.

“He’s even a more fascinating character than I thought,” said Oliver. “I found stories that I never heard before and pictures that have never been seen before. The real secret that I found is that no one called him August Vollmer. Everyone called him ‘Gus.’ To children, he was ‘Uncle Gus.’ And to police officers, he was simply ‘The Chief.’”

Through his research, Oliver discovered Vollmer was a humanitarian, treating prisoners with dignity and respect.

“Prisoners really loved him,” said Oliver. “He would talk to them and correspond with them. If someone was getting let out of jail, he would make sure they had a good, full, hot meal because he knew it might be days before they may have another one. If it was cold, he would give them a wool blanket. He didn’t look down on them or ridicule them. He saw them as a person who made a mistake, and he encouraged them to do something productive with their life.”

Despite his successes, Vollmer’s life ended at age 79 by suicide. Oliver didn’t shy away from the topic; instead he explored potential reasons behind it through both his supporters and detractors.
For Oliver, the book was clearly a labor of love.

“Some of his ideas and his influences, we still see in policing today,” said Oliver. “He was certainly a man ahead of his time.”
August Vollmer: The Father of American Policing is available from Carolina Academic Press.

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