Joseph McNamara, Retired San Jose Police Chief Who Fought to End Drug War, Dies at 79

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Joseph McNamara died last Friday, September 19th, 2014, at the age of 79. He was survived by his wife and three children.

Joseph McNamara was one of the original anti-drug-war warriors. He began his career in law enforcement in 1956, working as a beat cop for the New York City Police Department. He rose in rank, eventually becoming chief of police first in Kansas City, MO and later in San Jose, California.

From the beginning of his term as chief of police in Kansas City, McNamara worked to reduce the unnecessary use of force on civilians, especially those accused or suspected of non-violent offenses. His policy change on the use of lethal force in an area with one of highest rates of fatal police shootings didn’t go over well, and McNamara transferred to California, where his term as chief of police saw not only massive expansion of the San Jose area but also the lowest crime rate of a major metropolitan area, all with the smallest per capita police department in the region.

After fifteen years in San Jose, McNamara retired and accepted a position with the Hoover Institution, where he spoke out against the increasing militarization of police and the increased penalties being created for drug crimes. His focus always remained community-based policing, a concept out of popularity in this country for some time. He also advocated for giving nonviolent felons their voting rights back after they’ve completed their sentence.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that McNamara’s last article was a piece he penned condemning the recent police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. His words, ideas, and influence will continue to be one of the most powerful forces in the movement to reform law enforcement in this country and end the War on Drugs.

Photo Credit: Sudhamshu Hebbar under (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr