Opinion | August Vollmer ‘Abolished’ the Police in 1905 – The New York Times

Its striking that some of todays advocates for abolishing or defunding the police echo Mr. Vollmers 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. Vollmers 1936 textbook makes a similar suggestion, though more as an approach to reducing crime than Ms. Kabas 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 todays 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 Berkeleys 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 Muhammads 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 Departments 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. Vollmers 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 dont, 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 couldnt 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.

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Opinion | August Vollmer 'Abolished' the Police in 1905 - The New York Times

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