Iconic former San Jose police chief dies of cancer

"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"

By Robert Salonga
San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE — Joseph D. McNamara, the iconic former chief who helped usher San Jose and its police force into an era of national prominence in public safety, has died after his latest bout with cancer.

McNamara, 79, died in his sleep about 4 a.m. Friday his Monterey-area home. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last Christmas Eve.

Since leaving police work, McNamara was a fixture in police academia, and at the time of his death was a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which released a statement in cooperation with his family.

"Joe was a rare person: a man who not only served as a revered police chief, but who had uncommon insights," read a statement from the institution. "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."

McNamara served as police chief from 1976 until his retirement in 1991. Before coming to San Jose, he was chief in Kansas City. He began his career as a Harlem beat cop for the New York Police Department.

"He really laid the groundwork for turning an average police department struggling with community issues into one of the most progressive agencies in the country," said former chief Rob Davis, who joined SJPD near the start of McNamara's tenure and later led the department from 2004 to 2010.

Indeed, when McNamara came to SJPD after three years as chief in Kansas City, the department's reputation was that of a brutish force, particularly in its dealing with minority communities. He is credited with making sweeping changes to professionalize the department, though the abrupt new direction shook up so many longstanding practices that the rank-and-file gave him a vote of no confidence.

"I have to laugh, remembering my first five years," McNamara told this newspaper in 2012. "It hurt to know that people hated me. Now they've forgotten all of that."

McNamara is credited with diversifying the police force with respect to minorities and women, and reorganizing the department to focus on community-based policing and heal existing rifts, which included introducing bilingual staff to the internal-affairs unit.

"He humanized the community to the police department, and humanized the police department to the community," said Davis, who last saw McNamara two months ago at a police conference in San Francisco.

McNamara is also credited with making SJPD among the first departments to aggressively use crime data to deploy officers and install computer terminals in patrol cars to access that data in real time.

Davis remembered as a rookie cop the acrid department atmosphere McNamara inherited, and marvels now at how many of the reforms the chief introduced are taken for granted as standard police practice given how much resistance they initially faced.

That was embodied in McNamara's moves to discipline and demote misbehaving officers, often publicly, as gesture of transparency and accountability to an uneasy citizenry.

"It's interesting to me when I came on how people were grousing about him. He professionalized the department," Davis said. "We would have professionalized ourselves, but he helped us be 20 years ahead."

McNamara was one of the first prominent law enforcement officials to criticize the war on drugs. He would later go on to advocate for the legalization of marijuana.

Sgt. Jim Unland, president of the San Jose Police Officers' Association, was hired at the end of McNamara's tenure as part of a hiring surge that McNamara fought for as crime rates spiked nationally. Unland noted McNamara's zeal in advocating for the department at City Hall.

"Chief McNamara was a visionary leader who put public safety first and spoke the truth to political power," Unland said. "He will be missed."

After retiring, in addition to his work at the Hoover Institution, McNamara served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice, State Department and FBI. He held a bachelor's degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a doctorate in public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

He was also a crime novelist, with his latest title, "Love and Death in Silicon Valley," released two years ago.

Copyright 2014 the San Jose Mercury News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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