Retired police chief Joseph McNamara passed away last Friday, September 19th at the age of 79. His thirty-five-year law enforcement career began in 1956 as a beat cop for the New York City Police Department. He would later become a criminal justice fellow at Harvard, where he focused on criminal justice research and methodology. During this time McNamara took leave from police work to obtain a doctorate in Public Administration, and was appointed deputy inspector of crime analysis in New York City upon his return.
McNamara spoke out publicly against the drug war long before the issue had come to the political forefront. He was a speaker and advisory board member for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs. “When you’re telling cops that they’re soldiers in a Drug War, you’re destroying the whole concept of the citizen peace officer, a peace officer whose fundamental duty is to protect life and be a community servant,” said McNamara at a presentation for the International Conference on Drug Policy Reform in 1995.
“Chief Joe McNamara was one of the first people of position both to see the futility of our drug policy and have the courage to speak publicly about it,” said retired California Superior Court Judge James Gray, another LEAP speaker. “Without his contributions this movement would not be nearly as advanced as it is today.”
In 1973 he became the Kansas City police chief and is credited with leading the charge on groundbreaking and innovative programs and research. He hired more women and minorities, worked to bridge the racial divides for which Kansas City had been infamous, and promoted accountability within his department. He instituted record-keeping policies, updated technological capabilities, and spoke out against racial profiling. After three years McNamara was appointed police chief of San Jose, California where he remained until retirement in 1991. After retirement, he became a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI, and the State Department. He also authored five books including a crime-prevention text and three best-selling crime novels.
Retired Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper remembers him fondly. “What I do remember,” said Stamper, “…was Joe’s graciousness, his humor, and his integrity. Over the years, he demonstrated the power of principle, of speaking one’s mind and heart, of advancing the causes of justice and equality.”
Joseph McNamara is survived by his three children and his wife, Laurie.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is a nonprofit organization of criminal justice professionals who bear personal witness to the wasteful futility and harms of our current drug policies.