Joseph McNamara dies at 79; progressive San Jose police chief

Joseph McNamara
San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara in 1991. He began his career walking the beat in Harlem with the NYPD. McNamara went on to earn a doctorate from Harvard and wrote crime novels in his spare time.
(Joe Puglise, For The Times)

Joseph McNamara, the former San Jose police chief whose outspoken criticism of the war on drugs, the gun lobby and Daryl Gates gave him a national profile as a progressive leader in law enforcement, died Friday at his home in Carmel. He was 79.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, his family said.

McNamara led the police force in Kansas City, Mo., before becoming chief of San Jose’s police department in 1976. Over the next 15 years, until his retirement in 1991, he introduced broad reforms, including putting computers into patrol cars, hiring more women and minorities and emphasizing community policing.

He took high-profile stands against the National Rifle Assn., posing for gun-control ads that portrayed the group as indifferent to the dangers that lax laws created for the average street cop. He also was a vocal opponent of the so-called war on drugs, arguing that strict “lock-'em-up” approaches were failing.


At the same time, he demonstrated his effectiveness as a crime fighter. During his tenure as chief, San Jose’s population grew by 40%, but major crimes — including homicide, rape, robbery, assault and burglary — dropped by 9%.

“He was clearly looked upon as a leader … within the field of progressive police executive leadership,” retired Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper said Tuesday. “He was particularly committed to his police officers being effective crime fighters but also honoring the civil liberties of the citizens they were hired to serve.”

Shortly before he retired, McNamara became one of the most prominent law enforcement figures to publicly criticize Gates after his officers’ beating of Rodney G. King on March 3, 1991.

Gates had described the incident as an “aberration,” but McNamara suggested that a history of “Rambo-like” conduct painted a different picture of the Los Angeles Police Department and demanded a drastic remedy.


“The brutal videotaped beating of Rodney G. King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department and subsequent opinion polls indicate that Police Chief Daryl F. Gates has failed both to maintain the integrity of his force and the confidence of the public,” McNamara wrote in an op-ed piece for The Times two weeks later. “He should retire from office. It is difficult to see the LAPD regaining its credibility with him remaining as its chief.”

McNamara’s disparagement prompted a quick retort. “I think he’s a damned oddball,” Gates said of his San Jose counterpart. But the controversial LAPD chief ultimately resigned.

McNamara was himself no stranger to controversy. He was articulate and so frequently in the media limelight that critics accused him of being a self-promoter and grandstander. According to a 1991 profile in The Times, “some cops quipped that ‘he’d sell his mother on Mother’s Day for seven column inches and a photograph.’”

But McNamara, a Harlem beat cop who wound up with a doctorate from Harvard and wrote crime novels in his spare time, regarded speaking out on the issues of the day part of his job. “If you just sit on your hands because someone is going to attack you as grandstanding,” he said, “then you’ve sold out.”

The son and brother of New York City police officers, McNamara was born on Dec. 16, 1934, and grew up in the Bronx. He began his police career in 1956 as a patrol officer in Harlem. “I can’t overstate how important it was for me to walk that beat,” he told journalist Radley Balko, who profiled McNamara in the book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” published in 2013. “It made me invested in the lives of the people who lived in those neighborhoods.... It gave me a stake in their well-being.”

He was an NYPD lieutenant when he went to Harvard Law School on a criminal justice fellowship. He later earned a doctorate in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and returned to the force as a deputy inspector in charge of crime analysis.

In 1973 he was named Kansas City police chief, succeeding Clarence M. Kelley, who had become head of the FBI. Three years later he took over the San Jose Police Department and quickly began to shake things up, demanding the resignations of a handful of top brass, beefing up internal affairs and disciplining officers who cursed at suspects or made racist comments.

“He got a no-confidence vote from the police union, and at the same time a majority of the City Council wanted to fire him,” recalled Tom McEnery, who was San Jose’s mayor from 1983 to 1991. “He used to laugh: ‘I must be doing something right.’ He was a very self-confident guy.”


By the end of his tenure, he had earned praise for his leadership. “All in all, this place is better because he passed through,” Officer Carm Grande, a past president of the Police Officers Assn. who had clashed with the chief on numerous occasions, told The Times in 1991.

After retiring as chief, McNamara became a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he encouraged criminal justice professionals to consider alternatives to strict drug enforcement, including shifting more resources from punishment to rehabilitation, treatment and prevention. He was active in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a Maryland-based nonprofit focused on changing national anti-drug policies.

He is survived by his wife, Laurie; three children from a previous marriage, Don McNamara, Lauren McNamara Barrus and Karen McNamara Rust; and four grandchildren.

Twitter: @ewooLATimes

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