August Vollmer

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August Vollmer


The world has always been an intricate and cruel system. In order to face new challenges, the law enforcement services have had to initiate multiple reforms and changes. The history has shown that many persons have been trying to improve the situation. However, only a few personalities went down in history as true police reformers. One of them is August Vollmer, presumably the most progressive figure in the history of the U.S. criminal justice of the 20th century.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a thorough analysis of August Vollmer’s role in police reformation. The research paper closely investigates Vollmer’s biography and his police career in particular. The study evaluates Mr. Vollmer’s contribution to the law enforcement system and relates why it was of utmost importance.

The paper consists of several articles. The introduction outlines the paper’s objectives and key points to cover. The main body provides a complete informational back up consisting of Mr. Vollmer’s biography, career, contributions, milestones, etc. Finally, a conclusion contains a summary of the key findings.

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August Vollmer’s Biography

August Vollmer was born on March 7, 1886, in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A. (Wilson, 1953). His parents, native Germans John and Philippine Vollmer, were brought to the U.S. by their parents, who immigrated to the country years before. When little August was eight, his father died, leaving him, his 2-year-older brother, and their mother alone (Wilson, 1953). After his death, the family was left with a successful grocery business until they sold it because of the progressing illness of August’s mother (Wilson, 1953). The family took a long-term European trip, and after their return to New Orleans, they settled in San Francisco, California in 1888. The relocation basically outlined the end of his education at New Orleans Academy, but everyone who knew Vollmer for many years noted an immense education level he had reached by reading mountains of scientific articles and books (Wilson, 1953).

The turning point in 12-year-old August’s life happened during the actual move to California. The family traveled along with the widow of David Hennessy, New Orleans Police Chief, who was shot after a successful arrest of Mafia’s members. It is hard to define how strong that influence was, but it clearly gave him an impulse for his further career (Wilson, 1953).

His childhood at Berkeley was happy, and he was a particularly active child. All days long he was fishing, hunting rabbits, swimming in the nearby lake and hiking the Berkeley Hills. Moreover, he was a gifted young man. He learned how to play guitar and together with his friends created an amateur orchestra (Wilson, 1953).

His activeness and intelligence helped him to occupy the position in one of San Francisco business companies. Together with his partner, he founded a store in North Berkeley, which soon evolved into a prosperous enterprise. Nevertheless, it is important to mention that August Vollmer was too independent to own the enterprise on his own, despite great agility (Wilson, 1953).

July 1898 has begun a new era in Vollmer’s life. The Spanish-American War broke out. Having sold his business, August Vollmer rushed to achieve success in the final battle for the city of Manila in August 1898. It is worth mentioning that he was one of the ninety volunteers who handled an improvised military boat. His task as a boat operator was to keep the rivers safe as they were vital elements of the island’s connection system. Additionally, Vollmer was a participant of troop escorts, river settlements captures, and other operations to make the life of rebels as hard as possible (Wilson, 1953).

Soon enough, when the commonplace campaign slowed down, Vollmer decided to take a more serious challenge. He volunteered to penetrate the enemy territory full of rebels to get into a believed-to-be-friendly tribe and evaluate their strengths, weaknesses, and needs. A few days later, after the return to the headquarters, he and his colleagues came back with the support and reinforcement to help the tribe bring the enemy forces down from the rear (Wilson, 1953).

On August 17, 1899, August Vollmer ended his war in the Philippines (Wilson, 1953). It is vital to stress the fact that “saturated” military experience damped down the business life Vollmer had while he was a civilian. Thenceforth, he never returned to any business. He has chosen the other way (Wilson, 1953).

All his life August Vollmer was a model citizen. He received the Harmon Foundation Medal in 1929, “Distinguished Citizen of Berkeley” in 1931, and “Public Welfare Medal” in 1934 (Wilson, 1953).

August Vollmer died on November 4, 1955 (Dinkelspiel, 2010). He had Parkinson’s disease along with cancer (Fisher, 2008). Vollmer knew he would be a burden for his family and he did not want to become so. At the age of 79, Vollmer committed suicide by shooting himself with his service gun (Fisher, 2008).

Contribution to Police

At the beginning of the 20th century, Berkeley experienced a substantial growth of criminal activity (Wilson, 1953). Gamblers, drug dealers, prostitutes, and other notorious criminals started to invade a small and quiet town. The community refused to tolerate it and decided that a purge was the right option to choose from.

On April 10, 1905, August Vollmer was chosen as a Berkeley Police Marshal (Wilson, 1953). His friends insisted on balloting because, in their opinion, the war veteran was the only suitable candidate possessing needed qualifications and knowledge. Despite the fact that Vollmer’s family thought the police service would only worsen the situation for them, Vollmer decided to take a chance. He wanted to serve only one term and leave short after, but apparently at that moment a 29-year-old letter carrier started his long career in the law enforcement (Fisher, 2008). It is worth mentioning that he covered a long and thorny way from the police marshal of Berkeley to the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 16 years (Fisher, 2008). All this time, Vollmer had been training police officers in different fields, thereby improving the law enforcement of that time.

When August Vollmer entered the service, the police system was at its worst. The work of a police officer was associated with nothing but rudeness, corruption, and other negative notions. People did not consider the police to be a problem-solving factor, but rather a raveling one (Fisher, 2008).

One of the actions taken during Vollmer’s election campaign was to put all patrol officers on bicycles. He thought that the most effective way to ensure the concentration of the biggest force in one point was to provide fast and efficient transportation. The community was skeptical about the new way, but Vollmer implemented it (Wilson, 1953).

In 1906, August Vollmer created a centralized system of police records (Dinkelspiel, 2010). The system was something new to the town police. It was one of the first systems of that kind in the U.S. The system simplified the access to the police data and unified the process of recording.

In 1907, Vollmer established the first police school for officers, Berkeley Police School (Dinkelspiel, 2010). It is important to note that the instructors were Vollmer himself and his colleague from the Oakland police department. It was the first police school in the U.S. that concentrated on practical sides of the study rather than on theoretical ones. The subjects included photography, first aid lessons, sanitation law, and, what is the most important, criminal evidence. The new police administrator was famous for applying scientific principles to the police work, advancing the latter. The same year Vollmer stressed the necessity of using fibers, blood, and soil during investigations. He required the power to use the above-mentioned items by his department to successfully find and neutralize criminals. His methods and straightforward approach made it possible to open a number of forensic laboratories all over the state.

Having become the Berkeley’s chief of police in 1909, he moved forward. In 1910 he decided that the level of the police mobility was not high enough. He placed the law enforcement officers on motorcycles to increase the overall mobility of the teams (Wilson, 1953). However, in 1914, he discovered the increased level of injuries from motorcycle accidents. He decided to change the situation by providing the police officers with automobiles (Wilson, 1953). As before, the community derided his decision. Only after some time passed, everyone understood that Vollmer’s concept truly made the difference to the state police, as it significantly raised the speed, agility, and overall effectiveness of the law enforcement.

In 1914, Vollmer introduced the first means of communication between the police officers – a radio receiver (Dinkelspiel, 2010). In the same year, he created the first division of juvenile police in the United States. Vollmer used every possibility he had to promote and improve the police. He was trying to broaden the horizons and popularize the service.

In 1916, Vollmer headed the courses of criminal justice classes (Dinkelspiel, 2010). He established the first School of Criminology at the University of California, Berkeley and soon enough it became generally recognized.

The scientific approach and the police officers education always were Vollmer’s primary concerns. It was so important to Vollmer that by 1930 all police school recruits got 312 hours of class work. The knowledge they acquired there included technical preparation, criminal law, criminal procedure, police psychology, criminal identification, police administration and organization.

In 1919, Vollmer became one of the first police chiefs to hire African-American police officers (Dinkelspiel, 2010). Later, Vollmer introduced a radio receiver in a police car. From now on, the police officers in patrol cars could easily communicate and coordinate their actions. In the same year, he was the person to place the advertising in the University of California newspaper saying officer jobs were available. By taking this action, he managed to both popularize the police and recruit new people into the law enforcement.

In 1924, August Vollmer decided to head the Los Angeles Police Department (Fisher, 2008). He opened a crime laboratory, juvenile delinquency unit, and bureau of records. Moreover, he improved the process of hiring officers. He disregarded any gender- or nation-based bias and believed that all people were equal, had the same rights and freedoms. Following this belief, in 1925 Vollmer hired first female police officer (Dinkelspiel, 2010).

August Vollmer was convinced that the main purpose of a police officer was to prevent a crime from happening rather than resolve the outcome. He used to visit the jail every morning and communicate with prisoners to find genuine motives of their crimes. All his life he tried to improve the police system by understanding the mind of a criminal. Vollmer was a good psychologist, and all his findings were written down in his diaries. Unfortunately, before his death, he burned all letters and correspondence. What remained is now located in Bancroft Library at the University of California.

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As it has been stated before, August Vollmer was famous for applying scientific principles to criminal justice. The methods Vollmer developed were later adopted and improved by other people (Fisher, 2008). The theory of police professionalism, which was initially developed by Vollmer, was adopted by John Edgar Hover in 1924 after becoming a head of FBI (Fisher, 2008). Many of Vollmer’s former students achieved great success in the law enforcement, police administration, forensic science, jurisprudence, criminal education, and other fields. For instance, John A. Larson, at that time one of Vollmer’s students, in cooperation with the latter invented a polygraph machine in 1921, which was successfully used the same year (Wilson, 1953). Another example is V.A. Leonard, a famous writer and an educator of criminal justice, he also served under Vollmer’s supervision (Fisher, 2008). At least 25 police chiefs were guided by Vollmer by 1940 (Fisher, 2008).

August Vollmer was one of the few who spoke his mind openly and without fear of being in the minority. He interdicted the third degree, which was a brutal interrogation to get a confession. Additionally, he was never in favor of capital punishment and always tried to find a humane punishment (Fisher, 2008).

However, one man could not change the whole state’s police system. Despite numerous efforts, he was unable to overcome the massive political corruption prospering at that time in Los Angeles Police. Having not received any support from politicians, Vollmer left the department (Fisher, 2008).

August Vollmer was also known as the Professor of Police Administration. He occupied the position at the University of Chicago in 1929 and had been holding it for two years. In 1931, he accepted the offer from the University of California. Seven years later, in 1938, August Vollmer retired (Wilson, 1953). On a pension, Vollmer kept leading active life. He took visitors, wrote books, and gave pieces of advice to all who needed (Fisher, 2008).


The law enforcement service is changing every day. Constant improvement of tactical devices and training methods makes it easier for police officers to prevent and solve crimes. Today, people take police cars, radio transmitters, forensic laboratories, polygraphs, etc. for granted, without becoming thoughtful that all these have become attainable thanks to one man – August Vollmer. The unpretentious man contributed more to the law enforcement than a number of eminent professors. Vollmer was ahead of his time. His innovational approach, scientific methods, and sagacity determined the police service development for decades ahead, ensuring the prosperity of a peaceful society.