UC Berkeley’s role in shaping modern police

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Berkeley’s international reputation commonly portrays it as a home to radical, progressive activity; far less frequently, if ever, do its more negative exports appear in popular memory, including its unparalleled contributions to modern policing around the globe at the turn of the 20th century.

It is high time to consider the long-standing, intimate relationship between UC Berkeley and the city’s police department — a relation that provided the very foundation of the architecture of global modern policing as we know it.

Many of the most significant transformations to modern policing can be traced to the 27-year tenure of Berkeley’s first chief of police, August Vollmer. In collaboration with UC Berkeley, Vollmer introduced dramatic changes to the technological and methodological capacities of police departments. In this, he did far more than any other reformer did, earning him the title “father of modern law enforcement.”

In 1907, Vollmer established a formal school for teaching new officers, the first of its kind in the United States. Its teachings, however, were tactics Vollmer had learned during his time as an officer in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. According to journalist Albert Shaw, Vollmer “believed that the military techniques of war could be applied to the police war against criminal enemies.”

For the first time, military routines such as daily weapon drills were introduced in the regular training of officers. These reforms would prove greatly influential across the country, writes historian Julian Go, with directors of similar schools proclaiming that “ ‘the methods of training in use in West Point’ were being used in police schools ‘with excellent results.’ ”

To improve his school, Vollmer collaborated with friends at UC Berkeley. In 1916, he established a program through the campus teaching criminology, which became a mainstay of the regular school year in 1932. He was also hired by the campus as “professor of police administration.”

Synthesizing many European views on crime, Vollmer’s teaching was grounded in the belief in “racial degeneracy” as a decisive factor in crime. In his classes at UC Berkeley, Vollmer taught students about “racial types” and argued the importance of heredity as an influence on crime.

Complementing this training was his complete overhaul of the technical apparatus of policing, with some of the most advanced developments of anywhere in the world. Its military influence Vollmer made emphatically clear, once stating, “Concentration of force is supremely important in military science, and it will be important to the task we have at hand.”

Therefore, it was his department that made significant innovation to police mobility and communication: Berkeley Police Department was the first to have a fleet of patrol cars in 1913, which were later also the first to have radios in 1928. Vollmer referred to the patrol car as “the swift angel of death.”

These developments to police intelligence were far from neutral instruments. Vollmer directed his officers to “create criminal profiles, identify areas of high criminal activity, and allocate police patrols,” a novelty in current U.S. policing, using techniques he invented such as “crime-mapping,” where maps of the city were annotated to “predict” crime and distribute officers accordingly.

This topographical method was a principle method of counterinsurgency efforts for the U.S. military during its colonial occupation of the Philippines, used to monitor local resistance. Its application in the United States was no less colonial in design: In practical consequence, it facilitated the over-policing of areas deemed “high crime” and encouraged these communities be scrutinized by officers already trained to see them as enemy combatants.

The sophistication of Vollmer’s designs earned him wide national and international fame. The system was particularly attractive to right-wing leaders, such as Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado, who invited Vollmer to the island in 1926 to oversee a similar development.

Advisers trained by Vollmer were sent to a number of U.S. client states in the early Cold War to establish like departments and supply them with intelligence systems designed to monitor and suppress workers’ movements around the globe. One of Vollmer’s proteges, Oakland Chief of Police Ray Foreaker, trained police forces in South Korea, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Vietnam.

There is among some liberal commentators a tendency to frame Vollmer as a progressive reformer. It is, however, very difficult to regard these stances with anything more than a certain ambivalence; in the very same gesture, Vollmer’s philosophies were grounded in race science, he sat on the board of two eugenics associations and the technological infrastructure he pioneered enabled the more powerful intrusion of police into the fabric of modern life.

Thus, even his most charitable commentators are forced to admit that however open-minded Vollmer may appear, his legacy is just as bound up in a fundamentally anti-democratic understanding of what the activity of the police should be. Go’s assessment is the most succinct and correct: “If Vollmer is the ‘father of modern policing,’ then one key lineage of modern policing goes back to America’s empire.”

For its role in shaping the devices and military techniques of modern policing and likewise its horrifically racist, anti-Black discriminatory tactics, the UC system must follow the lead of the University of Minnesota and end its contract with the Federated University Police Officers Association, defund UCPD and refuse all ties with all police hereafter.

If it is indeed true that campus administration intends to commit itself to fighting police injustice, permanently ending its relationship to any police department must be at minimum its first priority. Anything short of this fails to atone for the full significance UC Berkeley and BPD have had in designing and popularizing the tactics that have most strongly contributed to the oppression of the Black community here and abroad.

I echo emphatically all previous calls from across the state, and encourage all readers to write to Chancellor Carol Christ and campus administration directly to demand action. They made it, and we have the power to change it.

This op-ed was written by a graduate student who requested anonymity for fear of police retaliation.