Former SJ police chief McNamara dies at 79

Joseph McNamara, crime researcher and San Jose’s police chief for 15 years who recently criticized the police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Missouri, died Friday at age 79, according to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

McNamara, who was chief of police in San Jose from 1976 to 1991, had since then served as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and taught at five colleges, including Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley according to the institution’s website.

The institute’s director John Raisian said in a prepared statement:

“It is with profound sadness that we learned of the passing of our colleague, Joe McNamara, who lost his battle with cancer this morning. … Joe was a rare person: a man who not only served as a revered police chief, but who had uncommon insights. … He was known by his colleagues for his tireless public service and deep commitment to promote ideas that contributed to positive solutions pertaining to law enforcement. … Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Laurie, and his children.”

In a statement, San Jose police spokesman Officer Albert Morales said:

“The San Jose Police Department mourns the loss of Chief McNamara, a great man and leader for our Department.”

McNamara, controversial for views favoring gun control and criticizing racial profiling of suspects by police, started his career in law enforcement in 1956 with the New York Police Department as a beat patrolman in the predominately black borough of Harlem, and later became a criminal justice research fellow at Harvard.

In 1973, McNamara earned a doctorate in public administration and dubbed himself as “the only retired police chief in the United States to hold a PhD from Harvard University,” according to his personal website.

In 1976, he became the youngest police chief in the country when he accepted the job in Kansas City, Missouri, where only days into his new job, an officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen burglary suspect, he recalled in an article he wrote for Hoover’s website on August 19.

In response, McNamara went to the boy’s funeral in plain clothes, rewrote department firearms policy that “prohibited police officers from firing at unarmed suspects” and “cut back on all police use of military gear,” he wrote:

“We invited local community leaders to help shape police responses. … In the wake of the new policy, police shootings fell dramatically, and crime declined as local leadership joined with police in speaking out against crime.”

McNamara wrote for Hoover in 1999 that San Jose’s leaders sought his appointment as police chief in 1976 to make improvements to the department after two fatal police shootings in the city, one of a black man in his front yard following a traffic violation and another of a young unarmed Hispanic thought to have been reaching for a weapon.

McNamara stated:

“As a result of the shootings and generally bad relations between the police and minority communities, the San Jose mayor and city council had asked the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to monitor the department. … Three years later, the commission praised San Jose police for greatly improving relations and recommended that the department be used as a national model for large cities. … San Jose police back then believed it was their job to keep the citizens in line. … They saw themselves as tough cops and believed that confronting everyone — especially minority males — as potential criminals would scare people into being law abiding. … In reality, police disrespect made citizens reluctant to report crime, help gather evidence, or come forward as witnesses. Paradoxically, the police were discouraging the very citizen cooperation they needed to fight crime. … With the help of San Jose supervisors and leaders from community organizations, we were able to change the police culture and bring cops back into contact with the people they served. … Both crime and police use of force declined as trust was renewed.”

McNamara would boast that during his tenure as police chief, San Jose became the “safest large city in the country, despite having the fewest police per capita,” according to the Hoover website.

In the August 19 article, his last published on the website, he criticized the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri, and specifically its chief, for its handling that month of the fatal officer-involved shooting of black teenager Michael Brown, who was not armed.

McNamara faulted the department for using of military-type vehicles and equipment to quell demonstrators and detaining a few journalists:

“This sort of militarization was intended for extremely rare hostage situations. … The arrest of journalists and the use of tear gas in Ferguson is zany. … The major issue, though, still is the unanswered question: What justification do the police have for killing an unarmed suspect? … The answer is always: None.”