August Vollmer has been hailed by many in law enforcement as the father of modern American policing. He has also been criticized for pioneering the militarization of the police and espousing the racist theories of eugenics. What’s rarely talked about, however, is that he began his tenure as the head of the police department of Berkeley, Calif., in 1905 by forcing all of his deputies to resign — arguably a kind of early experiment in abolishing the police. He eventually replaced them with college-educated people, hoping they would usher in a new, progressive era in policing.
In Mr. Vollmer’s ideal world, cops would never have to bust heads; instead, they would use their smarts to bring about social reforms that prevented people from becoming “crooks” in the first place. “You prevent people from doing wrong,” a protégé recalled Mr. Vollmer saying in a speech to a group of officers. “That’s the mission of a policeman. I’ll admire you more if in the first year you don’t make a single arrest.”
A 1916 article that Mr. Vollmer co-wrote disparaged traditional police departments as corrupt, inept and violent, with officers chosen for their “political pull and brute strength.” His solution, which became a reality at the University of California, Berkeley, was “a school for the special training of police officers,” which would grant the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in criminology.
It sounds like an uncontroversial suggestion. But Mr. Vollmer’s police school was actually part of a radical plan to dissolve the Berkeley Police Department and rebuild it as a better organization.
Today, as governments and citizens contemplate the future of local law enforcement, it’s worth remembering that reshaping American policing is not some shocking new idea from the radical left. Though Mr. Vollmer’s reforms were not a direct analogue of today’s abolish-the-police movement, he, too, argued that police departments didn’t do enough to serve their immediate communities.
Mr. Vollmer realized that policing was broken, and he believed that college education was the best way to fix it. He envisioned future police officers as educated professionals similar to doctors or lawyers — crime-solving specialists whose jobs involved “coordination of the resources of the community in a concentrated effort toward crime prevention,” as he wrote in his influential 1936 textbook, “The Police and Modern Society.” Educated police officers, he believed, would understand that they could not work alone, that they would need to coordinate efforts with other agencies and the community.
Meanwhile, Mr. Vollmer systemized the practices of policing and built in accountability. He mandated that his officers create written records of their work (the first that the city ever kept) to measure their progress in reducing crime. He popularized the idea of crime labs, where officers could study evidence using science — an idea that rapidly spread to other departments, along with his record-keeping methods. And his department partnered with social organizations for at-risk youth, such as the scouts and Boys’ Clubs.
Despite his utopian aspirations, Mr. Vollmer’s legacy is mixed at best. He militarized the police — a move that has echoes in today’s use of military weaponry by police forces, and he included eugenics in his proposed university curriculum.
Still, his fundamental insight — that police departments need to be radically rebuilt — keeps returning to public consciousness, haunting us until we do something about it. Mr. Vollmer was hugely influential in American policing, but some of his most forward-thinking suggestions remain aspirational, while his darker ideas planted the seeds for policing methods, such as racial profiling, that still plague us.
It’s striking that some of today’s advocates for abolishing or defunding the police echo Mr. Vollmer’s views. Mariame Kaba, an anti-criminalization activist and grass-roots organizer, recently argued that one way to abolish the police would be to “redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs.” She proposed that “trained ‘community care workers’ could do mental-health checks if someone needs help.”
Mr. Vollmer’s 1936 textbook makes a similar suggestion, though more as an approach to reducing crime than Ms. Kaba’s goal of creating a cooperative society in which police are obsolete. Mr. Vollmer asserted that school, welfare, health, and recreation were more likely to prevent crime than jails. “In a movement which aims at the reduction of crime,” he wrote, “there simply is no place for slums, malnutrition, physical want or disease.” He added that victimless crimes like drug use and sex work should be handled by nonpolice agencies, just as mental health crises should be.
And like today’s advocates for criminal justice reform, Mr. Vollmer wanted police officers to be accountable, hence his emphasis on keeping careful records of all arrests and investigations. Almost single-handedly, he ushered in the age of data analysis in police work. There is a direct line between his strategies in the 1920s and the use of body cams today.
There is also a direct line between his work and racial profiling. Like many white men of his day, Mr. Vollmer was infatuated with scientific racism, or the constellation of ideas that suggest there is a biological basis for racial hierarchies. In a section of his proposed police training curriculum, he listed “eugenics,” “the origin of races” and “race degeneration” as part of a section on “criminological anthropology and heredity.” Despite hiring Berkeley’s first Black police officer — the renowned Walter Gordon, who later was the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands — Mr. Vollmer suggested in some of his writings that Black people were predisposed to crime. Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s book “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America” explores how the violent injustices of Jim Crow policing were bolstered by ideas like the ones Mr. Vollmer promoted.
A veteran of the Philippine-American War, Mr. Vollmer based the Berkeley Police Department’s centralized command structure on what he had experienced in the military. And in 1906 he established mobile bicycle patrols (yes, he was an early champion of bicycle cops, too), based on tactics he learned while crushing resistance fighters outside Manila.
In the last century, Mr. Vollmer’s emphasis on mandating education and a professionalized police force has largely fallen by the wayside. While some police departments set minimum college education levels for their officers, many don’t, despite research indicating that officers who have graduated from college are almost 40 percent less likely to use any form of force. His notion of a liberal college education for police was supplanted by models that are closer to technical training programs, according to the criminal justice professor Lawrence W. Sherman. “Instead of serving as a resource for changing the role of the police,” Mr. Sherman wrote in the late 1970s, “college programs for police officers have been subverted to help maintain the status quo in policing.”
While some of this shift had to do with the growing conservatism of police departments, it was also rooted in a theory of community policing. Critics pointed out that working-class people couldn’t always afford to attend universities. If police departments wanted to hire officers who could patrol their own low-income neighborhoods, the argument went, it was elitist to demand four-year degrees.
To this point, Mr. Vollmer would perhaps respond that reforming the police doesn’t come cheap — and that public funds could be used to educate would-be officers. When he forced out his deputies, he rebuilt the department with extra money from the city for education, raises and lab equipment. The proposals of Ms. Kaba and other police abolitionists would put public funds toward educating a wide range of people in community support jobs: mental health experts, conflict de-escalation teams, addiction specialists and advocates who can help the unhoused find shelter.
American police departments reflect our nation’s darkest impulses toward organized violence and punishment, but they also reflect the aspirations of a society that believes in community service and protecting the innocent. As we chart a new course for law enforcement, it’s time that we revisit the lost history of police education — and make it part of our future too.
Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen) is the author of “Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age.”
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