Early Life and Early Career

August Vollmer, born on March 7, 1876, in New Orleans to German immigrant parents, was a seminal figure in the development of modern American policing. His father’s early death led to a return to Germany with his mother, but they soon relocated to San Francisco and then to Berkeley in 1890. Before turning 20, Vollmer had already helped organize the North Berkeley Volunteer Fire Department and supported his family through a partnership in a supply store. His enlistment in the U.S. Army for the Spanish-American War further exposed him to a range of experiences, which he would later apply to his policing methods.

Rise in Law Enforcement

Vollmer’s entry into law enforcement was almost serendipitous. In 1904, he heroically stopped a runaway railroad freight car, preventing a disastrous collision. This act of bravery led to his election as town marshal in 1905. By 1909, Vollmer became the first police chief of Berkeley, heralding a new era in policing.

Policing Innovations

He drew upon his military experience and extensive self-education in European police work to introduce significant reforms in the Berkeley Police Department. Vollmer was instrumental in setting up a bicycle patrol, creating the first centralized police records system, establishing a call box network, and training his officers in marksmanship. His efforts in modernizing the police force included the introduction of new technologies such as automobiles, fingerprint catalogs, and polygraphs.

Focus on Education and Recruitment

Vollmer’s progressive approach extended to officer education and recruitment. He valued formal education for police officers, a rarity at the time, and established training academies to further this cause. He recruited officers from the University of California, Berkeley, fostering a culture of educated law enforcement professionals. This initiative led many of his proteges to become police chiefs across the country. One notable recruit was Walter Gordon, whom Vollmer convinced to join the police force while finishing his law degree at UC Berkeley.

Lasting Impact on Policing

Vollmer’s influence on policing was profound. He championed an open-minded and scientific approach to law enforcement, insisting on rigorous testing and higher education for officers. His belief was that intelligence, training, honesty, and sincerity of purpose were crucial to controlling criminal elements. His impact on policing methods, his push for technological advancements, and his advocacy for educated law enforcement personnel have left an indelible mark on the field.

Legacy and Passing

August Vollmer’s legacy as the “father of modern policing” is well-earned. His reforms in Berkeley set a new standard in policing that spread across the United States, influencing the evolution of law enforcement into a more professional, educated, and technologically advanced field. Vollmer passed away on November 4, 1955, but his contributions to criminal justice continue to resonate in modern policing practices.

Involvement in Polygraph Development

Adding to the article about August Vollmer, an important aspect of his legacy is his connection with the development of the polygraph. Vollmer, as the chief of the Berkeley Police Department, was instrumental in the early stages of what would become the modern lie detector.

The Polygraph and John Larson

In 1920, John Larson, a Ph.D. graduate in physiology from the University of California, joined the Berkeley police force. Larson, who was deeply interested in scientific methods in policing, redesigned a machine originally invented by Harvard lawyer and psychologist William Moulton Marston. This machine, which Marston had used to intermittently measure blood pressure in subjects, was adapted by Larson with Vollmer’s support to continuously chart blood pressure and breathing, calling it the “cardio-pneumo-psychograph” or informally, “the apparatus.”

Polygraph’s Role in Criminal Investigations

Under Vollmer’s encouragement, Larson employed this device in various criminal investigations, marking a significant step in scientific law enforcement. The apparatus was used in notable cases, such as testing William Hightower, accused of murdering a priest, where the results of the interrogation were reported in the press, highlighting the machine’s capability in detecting lies. This development led the press to coin the term “lie detector.”

Leonarde Keeler’s Contribution

Leonarde Keeler, another key figure in the development of the polygraph, was introduced to Vollmer and Larson’s work as a young man. Keeler, under Larson’s mentorship, became absorbed with the apparatus and later evolved it into what he called the “polygraph.” After Vollmer left Berkeley to head the Los Angeles Police Department, Keeler followed and continued to work on the polygraph, improving its design and functionality.

The Polygraph’s Evolution and Spread

The collaboration and pioneering efforts of these three men – Vollmer, Larson, and Keeler – were foundational in the development of the polygraph, which became an essential tool in law enforcement and has been used, albeit controversially, for nearly a century


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