On August Vollmer’s 1935 Crime and State Police

This is the latest installment in the Disciplining the Nation series, a history of urban policing, incarceration, and criminalization in the United States as told through essential and teachable primary source documents. You can read the introduction to the project here, and previous installments here and here. If you’re a scholar of the carceral state and have an illustrative primary source document you think is essential in telling this history, please reach out.

In 1935, August Vollmer and his chronicler and biographer Alfred E. Parker published Crime and the State Police, a full-throated endorsement of the growing system of state police. As scholar Julian Go has explored, Vollmer is called the “father of modern policing,” served in the infantry in the 1898 US invasion of the Philippines, and went on to become the chief of police in Berkeley, California, where he introduced many reforms that militarized, professionalized, and mobilized police tactics. The book, one of many he published during the highpoint of his career between the 1920s and 1940s, raised the alarm about what he perceived as a growing problem: the mobility of crime.

“Crooks from metropolitan areas began invasion [sic] of rural sections,” he wrote in the preface to the book. “They now steal farmers’ produce and transport it by train and truck to large cities. Gang leaders and their henchmen drive into a town, commit their depredations, and return to their lairs many miles distant, before the town officials even know that a crime has been committed.” The message was clear: people from the cities, which were understood by Vollmer’s intended audience to be more racially diverse, were moving outward to threaten a decidedly white way of life. Increased access by the working classes, namely immigrants, first generation Americans and African Americans, from dense urban areas to rural and suburban leisure activities, such as picnicking, hiking, and amusement parks, explains some of this reaction. 

Portrait of August Vollmer seated at a table and turning toward camera.
“August Vollmer” (1929), Underwood & Underwood, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

“Against the modern gang, village and town banks are defenseless,” Volmer continued. “The rural police officials now responsible for the protection of the smaller communities have, almost without exception, shown that their training and equipment are inadequate for the successful discharge of their duties.” From the beginning, the state police system in the United States was racialized. The first, the Pennsylvania State Police, was founded in 1905 as a response to the coal strike of 1902, which consisted heavily of immigrant laborers from Eastern and Southern Europe. Many professionalized police departments in the mid-nineteenth century explicitly targeted the labor movement, particularly immigrant laborers, who were racialized and often deemed incompatible with an American way of life. But in advocating for a state policing system’s usefulness against a rapidly diversifying working class, Vollmer also revealed the global and colonial roots of the state police system. That is why, for this installment of the Disciplining the Nation series of primary sources that illustrate the history of policing and incarceration in the United States, I have chosen a section of chapter 11, “State Police in Foreign Countries,” from Vollmer and Parker’s book.

State policing—that is, the centralized model of a police force whose jurisdiction spans an entire territory—did not, in fact, appear first in Pennsylvania. It appeared in European colonies across Africa and Asia, thousands of miles from the United States empire, where, as Vollmer points out, colonizers long used state policing as a tactic for social and political control. Vollmer’s text sketches the development of a now familiar pattern: European powers tested tactics in their overseas colonies and then shared them with the United States, who used these same tactics in its occupation of the American West and its overseas colonies before eventually bringing them to urban centers for domestic policing of workers, immigrants, and other racialized populations within the nation’s boundaries. As Vollmer writes, “the state police system of foreign countries have been taken as a pattern by the United States for the policing of American island possessions, where foreign populations are numerous and where America has found, as has England, that the simplest way to police such areas is by the use of one police force for the entire territory. The United States government has set up a constabulary in the Philippine Islands, the Insular Police in Puerto Rico, and a police department for the Panama Canal Zone.”

While state troopers or highway patrol often are not the most prevalent or visible police force in many people’s daily lives, studying Vollmer’s advocacy to expand the system reveals a number of larger and essential historical threads about the history of policing in the United States. One, that the origins and innovations of policing in the United States are often tied to the question of how to subordinate a population, where police are often not from the communities they are tasked with subordinating, nor do they speak the same language of the people they wish to surveil and infiltrate. For this reason, the US empire, and empires more generally all over the globe, became an important laboratory for policing measures that could one day prove useful as global migration patterns brought people from all over the world to industrial centers in North America. 

And two, this work alludes to a larger inquiry for scholars: that of policing as an articulation of foreign policy and an expression of imperial ambitions. The intersection of police power, racial violence, global influence, and territorial expansion, after all, can be traced back to the colonization of the western half of the continent all the way through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The field of inquiry includes the building up of the physical capacity for subordination in overseas colonies as well as the exchange of ideas between empires, the importation of colonial technologies to the metropole, and international cooperation regarding extradition treaties, intelligence sharing, and law enforcement or counter-insurgent cooperation. Historians, such as Marisol Lebron, Julian Go, Stuart Schrader, Micol Siegal, Nikhil Pal Singh, Katherine Unterman, Simeon Man, and more, have produced recent scholarship showing the evolution and afterlives of the project that Vollmer championed in 1935. With scholarly eyes more attuned toward gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and foreign policy, generations of scholars have been able to articulate the conjoined processes of knowledge production, race-making, and citizen-making that underlined the infrastructure that Vollmer and his peers built and maintained. Vollmer stood at the intersection of not only the global policing strategies brought home to US cities, but also the growth of US domestic policing’s presence in the wider world and the growing footprint of global policing measures inside muti-racial American cities—and that is why this document is worthy of consideration. It is an articulation of the way that these threads were woven together by thinkers like Vollmer and his cohort. 

Contemporary scholars of the national security state, the US empire and counterinsurgency, race and ethnicity, domestic policing, as well the as the struggle for decolonization, anti-imperialism, and labor activism would be well positioned to build on the recent literature by looking further back in time to the United States in the early twentieth century. 

Photo of Matthew Guariglia

Matthew Guariglia is a historian of race and a policing and co-editor of Disciplining the City. He is an affiliated scholar at UC-Hastings, School of Law and his book on how race, immigration, and imperialism helped to build the modern police department in New York is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

Featured image (at top): “Pennsylvania Constabulary, Mounted on Horses, at McKee’s Rock” (n.d.), Bain News Service, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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