Oliver’s Exhibit Honors Father Of American Policing
May 11, 2017
SHSU Media Contact: Beth Kuhles
The badge and gun used by August Vollmer at the turn of the 20th century were returned home to Berkeley, California, and were unveiled to the public during an exhibit honoring “the Father of American Policing.”
The exhibit, which runs through September at the Berkeley Historical Society, was created by Willard Oliver, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University, in honor of the former Berkeley police chief. Oliver just released an 800-page book about Vollmer, who is credited with modernizing local policing agencies by starting the first criminology program at the University of California, Berkeley; launching the first free-standing police crime lab in Los Angeles; introducing the first polygraph machine; employing the first one-way radio system; and using hot spot policing.
“Everything was too cool, but seeing the badge and the gun was my favorite,” Oliver said. “The badge and gun had been lost for a long time and now they have come back to the police department.”
Ironically, the 14-karat gold and diamond badge was discovered in Texas, tucked neatly in a box of books that sold for $5 at an estate sale. The inscription on the back of the badge – “Presented by the Police Dept. of the City of Berkeley to August Vollmer, July 1909,” led back to Berkeley and the couple that found the historic gem donated it to the police department.
The .38 Smith & Wesson gun also had an intriguing history. Inscribed with Vollmer’s name and used in his suicide, it had been passed down from chief to chief, left in a desk drawer in the office, until it was taken home during a mass cleanup. It too was returned to the department this year.
These heirlooms were among the treasures revealed in the exhibit, which included more than 100 professional and personal photos of Vollmer—many never before seen in public; his heroic service during the Spanish American War; and the people and programs he inspired. Vollmer was a prominent figure in his time, who authored four books and was featured in popular media of the day, including “Collier’s” and “True Detective.” He also appeared in a serial silent movie as himself called “Officer 444.”
“No one has as great a story as August Vollmer,” Oliver said. “For 10 years, I have been working on this and here it is at the point that I get to share it with others. This is probably the pinnacle of my career; I don’t think anything can come close to this effort.”
The photos illustrate Vollmer’s professional and personal side. On the job, he was portrayed as a stern leader, but he also had a softer side. Pictures show him playing a guitar with neighbors and handing out candy or baked goods to children, which he did frequently.
“Children knew they could go over to Uncle Gus’s house and get sweets,” Oliver said. “In the ‘50s, he had the first TV in the neighborhood and invited the children over. He really loved the children.”
Four of those children, now in their 60s, turned up for the opening of the exhibit, sharing stories about the kind, elderly man that lived down the block.
“It was neat to see the children from the picture,” Oliver said.
During the opening, Oliver eagerly shared Vollmer’s story with residents, visitors and officers at the Berkeley Breakfast Club, on a walking touring of Vollmer’s old haunts, at the annual Police Retirees Breakfast and during a public presentation for the Berkeley Historical Society. While visiting the area, Oliver even was invited to tour Vollmer’s home to better visualize the events that unfolded there.
Vollmer’s influence still is felt today in the criminal justice discipline. In addition to scores of criminology and criminal justice programs at universities across the country and world, two major awards bear his name. The American Society of Criminology presents the August Vollmer Award for outstanding research in the field, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police presents its award for Excellence in Forensic Science. In fact, Vollmer was among the prestigious national leaders, including J. Edgar Hoover, John D. Rockefeller, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Gates, to receive the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.
“August Vollmer: The Father of American Policing” is available from Carolina Academic Press.
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