Former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara Dead at 79

Joseph D. McNamara, the police chief who created San Jose's reputation for having one of the most progressive police departments in the country, has died.

Reports say he died in his sleep in his Monterey home. He was 79 and coming off of a years-long battle with cancer.

Former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery praised McNamara's contributions to the city and police department in an email.

"No one helped propel San Jose into the upper echelon of good cities and the best PD in the nation more than McNamara: community policing, recruitment and promotion of minorities and women, neighborhood involvement; a PD that looked [out for] and cared about the community. He was a Chief and person we could all learn from and our City should profit from his example," McEnery wrote.

McNamara served as chief of the San Jose Police Department from 1976 until retiring in 1991. He later became a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

In 1986, the Los Angeles Times noted that he was a "surprisingly well-liked cop for being a Harvard-educated gun control advocate":

McNamara's distaste for using guns has been constant through his career, even though it has contributed to his reputation as a "controversial" police chief. It led to his resignation in 1976 as Kansas City chief of police after a turbulent three-year term there, and it was a major issue in the power struggle he waged with his own officers during his first four years in San Jose. This time, however, McNamara emerged with enhanced authority, a revitalized police department and a reputation as the most progressive police chief in the United States.

Having quelled the fires in his own backyard, McNamara has since turned some of his attention to national issues. In the past year he has repeatedly appeared on network television to argue for tighter gun control laws, and in the process has become a bete noire of the National Rifle Assn., whose lawyers twice in the last eight months have threatened to sue him.

McNamara brings imposing credentials to the gun control debate. He is one of the few police chiefs in the country with a Ph.D. (a doctorate in public administration from Harvard in 1973). He is the author of three books, including a best-selling detective novel, "The First Directive," and a crime-prevention manual called "Safe and Sane." He is even an accomplished horticulturist, caring for 23 varieties of roses at his San Jose home. Cops and roses may not seem to mix, but the combination underlines what an unusually peaceable policeman McNamara is.

McNamara was raised in the Bronx, where his father was a policeman. But he wasn't too keen on following in his dad's footsteps at first. He wanted to be a baseball player, according to the LA Times. But he did eventually take the police civil service test, finishing first out of 140,000 applicants. He took a job as a beat cop in Harlem, where he saw firsthand the damaging effects of racism.

"You're dealing with the results of prejudice and deprivation every day," he told the LA Times. "I developed an enormous amount of sympathy for the underdog because of those years of experience."

That awareness followed him through his career.

When McNamara took his post in San Jose in 1976, the city's police were embroiled in charges of brutality and racism. He immediately implemented affirmative action, disciplined officers for excessive use of force and racism and required them to develop a civil relationship with the public.

"Generations of San Jose community members mourn the loss of Chief Joe McNamara, whose leadership and service left an indelible mark o our city's human landscape," Councilman Sam Liccardo wrote in a statement Friday. "Chief McNamara's work in rebuilding trust between officers and the neighborhoods, in diversifying the SJPD workforce and in implementing community-based policing made San Jose a safer place. Thousands of officers and residents walked a little taller as a result of Chief MaNamara's decades of leadership."


  1. Liccardo is disgusting. He is actually trying to score political points by praising a leader who had so much to do with building SJPD into the great organization that Liccardo is now doing everything he can to destroy. The fact that SJI even goes to Liccardo for a quote about the loss of this great man sadly demonstrates that it has joined the Mercury-News, nestled up under the covers with the big money interests that back Reed and Liccardo. Liccardo hadn’t even started Law School by the time Chief McNamara retired. This is just another cynical opportunity for him to get his name in print, with the hope that some voters might be misled into believing that Liccardo is pro-law enforcement.

    Liccardo did get one thing right, however. Chief McNamara’s leadership did make San Jose a safer place. Unfortunately, Liccardo’s leadership has had the opposite effect.

    • Hey Pete, that’s a nice tribute – if Liccardo hadn’t praised McNamara you would’ve criticized him. Save your political whining for another page.

      Chief McNamara was a great public servant and punt San Jose on the map in the area of law enforcement, may he Rest In Peace.

  2. Chief Joe Mac voiced his dislike of measure B and believed it was doing harm to the Dept. For Liccardo to comment on the chief and say how he got the city as one of the safest makes me sick. Where the Chief worked hard to develope a great dept Liccardo has helped to ruin the dept thru measure. B. I know the chief was upset with what has happened to SJPD. Liccardo your not fit to speak about Joe Mac. If Joe Mac was still the chief he would have never aloud you to ruin the dept and he would not have been your lap dog

  3. McNamara in an interview about a year ago stated what Reed and Liccardo are doing is wrong, Illigal and will ruin the Dept. he was right but the Meecury News and San Jose Inside will not print it and keep backing these bafoons

  4. What a great loss to us all. Thank you for your service Chief. May this wonderful man rest in peace~

  5. The fact that Sam Liccardo was a schoolboy living outside San Jose during the entirety of Joe McNamara’s tenure doesn’t stop him for a minute from trying to associate himself, risk-free, with the now dead former police chief. He knows nothing of the man and nothing of the true nature of his job performance; all he knows is that it is politically safe to pose as a fan of the Mercury’s favorite police chief, and especially helpful for a mayoral candidate whose popularity with living and breathing cops ranks just below herpes.

    Can we expect a photo of a tearful Sam snuggling up to the casket? Getting accustomed to posing at police funerals will be good practice for him, should the voters be foolish enough to elect him. There aren’t enough cops to protect each other as it is and his election will only make the job that more dangerous.

    • Instead ofd paying tribute to Chief McNamara, you try to score cheap political points on someone for paying tribute to an icon in San Jose. Your using this area to comment on politics is classess and pathetic. Not once do you use your comments to praise the work of McNamara. Such a pathetic comment.

    • Liccardo’s quote, and SJI’s decision to include his quote in this story, are soley about politics. Liccardo had no business being mentioned in this story and his inclusion was an affront to memory of an outstanding leader. You’re aboslutely right. The focus should have been on Chief McNamara, not politics. It was Liccardo and SJI who chose otherwise.

    • Rich for once I can agree with you. We’re all well aware of the state of the SJPD, but we don’t want to sully McNamera’s memorial from SJI with this stuff. He did his part towards that cause before he left us.

      @David Wall: For once I can disagree with you. You talk about the prostitution going down around the hotel his wife worked at. Does the motivation or the results matter? I’m happy with the results. I lived on Pierce avenue during his tenure, and got to see first hand the shift in the neighborhood. I can honestly say I appreciated those efforts.

  6. Chief McNamara was absolutely the most “analytically ruthless” of any Chief of the San José Police Department since its founding as well as up to this very day. It is unlikely any Chief of the San José Police will wield the power Chief McNamara had during his tenure.

    He ruled with complete dictatorial powers unprecedented and unfettered in the history of San José Police Department. And his “reach,” via his influence on other matters far exceeded “reasonableness” on any scale envisioned by the elected folken at the time.

    The Chief left many politicians, Department Heads and many others, “quaking in their boots” and or “soiling themselves” if they were “foolish and or downright stupid” enough to “get in his way.” If a Police Officer “irritated” the Chief, that Police Officer would receive “The Kiss of Administrative Death.” Many good and decent Police Officers suffered under McNamara’s menacing “stainless-steel-fisted-my-way-or-the highway” rule.

    Here are a couple of snippets of what Chief McNamara accomplished.

    When Chief McNamara’s wife got a job at the St. Claire Hotel, prostitution in the surrounding vicinity was summarily and militarily “crushed” within a matter of days.

    When you observe a San José Police cruiser, Chief McNamara was responsible for putting computers into every “squad car.”

    Concerning Councilmember Liccardo’s praise of Chief McNamara;

    The Councilman is entitled to “freely” express his opinion and praise anyone he wants.

    ***As to MY Opinion Only…Councilmember Liccardo is “loathed very much beyond the point of contempt” by;
    San José Police Officers, San José Fire Fighters, San José City employees and a litany of “who’s who of city retirees.” (And certainly a number of District 3 Voters who have seen D3 go down the toilet under his administration.)
    Someone on Councilman Liccardo’s staff at City Hall should thoroughly inform the Councilman of these facts. Councilmember Liccardo’s voting record has practically destroyed “Public Safety.”

    Chief McNamara was truly, “One of a kind.” I still marvel to this day as to what he was allowed to “get-away-with.”

    I’m certain Chief McNamara is in Heaven. Satan doesn’t want this Chief poking him in the butt for all eternity with the powers of the pitchfork the Council gave Chief McNamara during his time in San José.

    David S. Wall

    • Who cares how much power he had. At least he didn’t abuse his power and he was able to make San Jose one of the safest cities in the country. Isn’t that his job and all that matters?

  7. I cringed at the comment from Liccardo on Chief McNamara’s passing. Liccardo or Reed have no right to comment after what they have done to our City and our officers. Here is part of the what Joseph McNamara had to say regarding the mess they (Reed, Liccardo, and most of City Council) got us into.

    “Present police benefits are not the sole or primary cause of the city’s fiscal problems. Many other questionable political decisions have depleted city revenues and increased non-essential costs during a time calling for restraint in spending. A succession of mayors and city councils did what they had to do to hire cops. The city and POA engaged in tough and extended negotiations following state laws. Cops did not “occupy” City Hall or engage in unlawful conduct to insist upon their demands. Both sides signed legal contracts guaranteeing today’s benefits for existing employees. In return, San Jose got a bargain, becoming the safest large city in the nation with the least per-capita police staffing, and the United States Civil Rights Commission declared the SJPD a national model.

    Benefits for future employees have always been fair game for negotiations, but it is not in the public interest to demoralize the police by breaking existing contracts negotiated in good faith. The police are the ultimate symbol of American government and its defender against mobs.

    When cops themselves lose faith in government’s willingness to follow its own laws, it doesn’t bode well for democracy as a whole. It is imperative that the police who protect citizens’ rights don’t come to believe that the public has turned against them and lost respect for the important job they do.”

    By Joseph D. McNamara

    • If someone asks Liccardo to comment on McNamara, it would be classless for him to simply say ‘no comment’. Mayor and City Councilpersons pay tribute to public servants – it is what they do……..and to criticize him for paying tribute to a public servant is stupid of you.

      • SJC, Liccardo’s comments are not sincere which is why I cringe. As far as paying tribute, actions speak louder than words and his actions have been despicable and obviously Chief McNamara agreed by his comments. Liccardo has fully supported all of Reed’s illegal and unethical schemes which have made us all victims to his politics by the millions of tax dollars that have been wasted. And there are many other victims to crime since many of our police officers have decided they’ve had enough of this political circus and went to other departments where they are appreciated and not disrespected by the City that employs them.

        • When Ronald Reagan died, John Kerry paid tribute……..when Gerald Ford died, Jimmy Carter did his eulogy….would the fact that they opposed each other disqualify them from offering tribute of their death. Why do you need to wrap the campaign into this – A MAN DIED.

      • And you have to understand that for those who do the job , It is a straight kick in the teeth . it is absolutely disingenuous to comment on the actions of Progressive Police Chief , when your main goal has always been to decimate public safety

        • Main goal is to decimate public safety? Are you saying everyone who votes for Sam Liccardo wants to make sure there is no public safety……..that people love crime and embrace it as a part of everyday life? It is a joke that your simplistic view is that people who oppose those who want to promise things that don’t have the $$$ to pay for them don’t want safve streets for their children and family. The reason why Cortese will most likely lose this election (in addition to him thinking he is his own best treasurer) is that his supporters play scorched earth politics where finding compromise through negotiating is a vital way of doing business.

          Do you think if the City Council was full of Xavier Camposes (as is Dave Cortese’s vision since he endorsed him) that we would be any safer?

          • It is no secret that Mayor Reed and Liccardo despise SJPD/SJFD . It is also no secret that both of these Men have placed ALL of the City’s financial problems on the backs of its workers. If Measure B was left intact , Public Safety would be contributing 46% of their salaries into their own Med/Den and Pensions. No one would be able to live and pay a mortgage on that insane salary.
            Pension Reform is an absolute necessity , No one has ever said it wasn’t. But it must be negotiated and not litigated . Both Reed and Liccardo have refused to even negotiate. City Manager Ed Shikada came to an amicable agreement with the POA and Local 230 , only to have it rejected by Reed and Liccardo(along with the rest of of Reeds clown court , Hererra , Constant , Nguyen , Oliverio) . City workers offered a proposal that would have saved the city $500 Million Dollars inside of 5 years , GUARANTEED. where any shortages would have come from the workers side. again , Reed refused to even discuss it . simply because he wanted to push Measure B.
            No one is foolish enough to think that Cortese will solve all the problems . BUt the one thing about Cortese is that he is willing to negotiate. where as Liccardo has already shown and proven that he is absolutely unwilling to negotiate . any one who votes for Sam either is not keeping up with whats going on in San Jose , is a true 1%er , or has bought into his many half truths , exaggerations and flat out lies . The Mass exodus of Public Safety will expedite itself should ( heaven forbid) Liccardo win.
            Campos is a Punk , you going to sit there and act like all your friends are perfect individuals? Everyone has at least one friend that they are not to proud of.
            lastly , maybe you didn’t have a dad to teach you to “mean what you say and say what you mean”. Or if you make a promise then you keep that promise. Keep n mind that Reed personally approved all increases to benefits for at least the last 15 yrs.

      • I don’t think anyone is or should be upset that Liccardo responded to any SJI request for a comment. The fact that SJI published Liccardo’s comment coupled with the absence of a published comment from Cortese is the glaring ommission.

        Equal time? I doubt the law applies here and it probably shouldn’t since SJI proves time and time again that it is not an entity that engages in journalistic reporting. It’s a “thing” that pushes an opinion or an agenda. SJI is no better than the Merc which has been pulling off its own charade for far longer.

  8. In his Mercury News piece on Joseph McNamara, Scott Herhold revealed more about his shortcomings and those of his newspaper than he did about the legacy of the former chief.

    Joseph McNamara is a legend in San Jose not because he modernized a police department (SJPD already had the pieces in place and would’ve modernized organically), but because he’d learned — at NYPD and Harvard, how to build himself into a legend. Upon arrival his first order of business was to forge alliances, not with department members (being neither genuine nor charismatic he could never win over cops), but with the local media, where he could barter and trade for the political capital needed for dealing with city hall.

    Unlike most, the chief understood the real challenge to local law enforcement and was smart enough not to take it on. No, it wasn’t the cops (though SJPD was enduring growing pains), it was something neither the media nor elected officials would ever dare identify: age demographics. The baby boom had put more far young people on the street than America’s criminal justice system could handle. Example: In 1960, before any baby boomers reached adulthood, California’s had a population of 15.7 million and 616 murders; by 1976, population, 21.5 million, 2200 murders; 1980, 23.5 million, 3400 murders — a 371% increase in twenty years. That’s the raw power of crime demographics.

    In 1976, the year Joe McNamara arrived to rescue San Jose, murders, rapes, and robberies were committed in the state at twice the rate they are today, and police departments, especially those serving populations most prone to incivility and criminal conduct (blacks and Hispanics) were regularly overwhelmed. Young people with nothing to do filled downtowns, and raucous street parties involving hundreds of under-the-influence young people were the weekend norm in every police district. Unpleasant interactions with police were inevitable.

    Fast growing cities (SJ was in the top three nationwide) were especially challenged; they hired as fast as their budgets and training structures would allow, but they lost ground every year until the first-decade boomers began aging out of the crime demographic. Incidentally, crime dips, though often proclaimed as evidence of “community policing” or some other such nonsense, are typically the product of demographics (fewer young people), adequate police staffing, and, importantly, career criminal sentencing policies.

    The lack of moral courage typical of American politicians makes me-first police administrators, those unrestrained by professional commitment or personal principles, valued commodities. These are the “leaders” who provide catchy slogans, smoke & mirror programs, and fanciful solutions necessary to divert blame for societal problems from easily-offended voters and onto convenient targets such as police (their conduct, training, prejudices, etc.). This sleight of hand political game also provides media dupes with a target group they’re more than happy to malign. Joe McNamara was the right man for the job, immediately slandering the troops by calling the SJPD a “cowboy department,” insisting there were heavy-handed “rotten apples,” and denying the department had national prominence (Note: progressive changes such as psychological screening, regimented academies, formalized field training, etc. all preceded JM’s arrival).

    After publicly labeling the cops as the problem — winning him the support of black and Hispanic rabble-rousers, JM was granted the tools he needed to reign over the department like Stalin incarnate. His “rule of ten” replaced merit-based advancement; it and other draconian means were used silence dissent and cull from the department those with the potential to challenge his iron-fisted and often counterproductive tactics (“a brain drain,” observed a fellow PhD). He embraced affirmative action with complete disregard for competence and fast-tracked his most enthusiastic followers, many of whom he’d personally neutered earlier in their careers. Hundreds of talented, hard-working white men were denied promotion despite their having excelled on promotional tests of McNamara’s own design. A great number of these “non selects,” men of substance who put their lives at risk enforcing rules, were left emotionally and professionally gutted after discovering that, in Joe McNamara’s police department, rules can neither be broken nor trusted.

    All the while, JM worked on his national profile, taking on the gun lobby, criticizing other police departments, and mocking the drug laws. Clearly the man wanted more, but his substance and style — assets at the Podunk level of this city, proved to be deficits at the national level. He was unpopular among his own fraternity of police chiefs and feared by political leaders; small wonder why he migrated away from administration and into academia.

    The department left in his wake was a good one, a fact almost wholly owed to the quality of the local labor force, the values and traditions inherited from earlier generations, and a police association that constantly pushed for better training and equipment. I would not deny that JM did some good things (by way of his accumulated political power), but he left the department with a command staff (and culture) bred to value subservience and caution as leadership qualities (in other words, they’d learned to fear, not emulate, him).

    In the decades after Joe McNamara arrived “to tame” the cops and rescue the black and Hispanic communities, residents had been introduced to the nightmare of youth gangs (formed during his watch and ignored solely for political reasons), blacks and Hispanics are still committing crime as if they hold the patent, and the police continue to be scapegoated for political reasons. As for the SJPD, it has suffered greatly for a number of reasons, not the least of which has been a succession of weak, ineffective chiefs.

    As a city savior, Joe McNamara never managed to live up to his billing, no matter how loud he honked his own horn or how many outstanding people he sacrificed in service to his self-aggrandizement. Ruining the lives of others never cost him a sorrowful moment, a wink of sleep, or an inkling of doubt, and no one who has ever known the real suffering of his many victims would ever mourn his passing.

  9. I worked as a firefighter in San Jose when Chief McNamara was the Chief. His reputation was much that, a reputation. I used to work hand in hand with San Jose Police Officers. I was a Union official for San Jose Fire, and interacted with many SJPD. We worked on political campaigns together and discussed his leadership. Sorry he passed, but I had little regard for his ability and his “logic”. He was an elitist of the highest order. Much like Tom McEnery. These two loved each others politics and tried to destroy the Police officers Bargaining Rights.

  10. > He was an elitist of the highest order. Much like Tom McEnery. These two loved each others politics and tried to destroy the Police officers Bargaining Rights.


    But I don’t know much about Tom McEnery’s politics, or the politics of most of the insiders of San Jose.

    My impression is that McEnery’s politics was “Democrat crony capitalist insider” who paid lip service to the Democrat Party narrative, but paid a lot more attention to watching out for Tom McInery than to watching out for “the little people.”

    I.e., a pretty typical twentieth century big city Democrat politician.

  11. SJC,

    You berated me (for not praising McNamara in my post critical of Liccardo) and accused me of being classless for using this site to comment politically. This raises a question:

    Are you nuts? Do you equate SJI with an online obituary guest book or funeral home? Do you see a casket or floral arrangements? Do you hear muffled sobbing and organ music? Are you wearing a dark suit as you type? Have you not figured out this is a political site?

    In his years of city employ, Joe McNamara was at all times a politician, and had he not been, his passing, twenty-three years removed from the job, would not have garnered the media attention it did. McNamara’s bloated reputation was built on political theater, not great achievements, which is why articles about him, like Herhold’s, compliment him for overcoming obstacles strickly of his own invention (SJPD resistance to “an outsider,” the “cowboy department,” the “blue wall of silence”). The truth of his administrative style is that he would trade the public welfare for personal gain, as he did when he denied the emergence of youth gangs (and suppressed efforts to nip it in the bud), when he handcuffed his east side coppers and surrendered that area’s key intersection (King and Story) to hooligans numbering in the thousands, and when he used his official position to condemn drug laws (just the sort of message parents want their kids hearing from their police chief).

    Nonetheless, if you want me to say something positive about Joe McNamara’s fifteen years as chief, here goes: he didn’t stay for twenty.

    • I’m an author and had the privilege of reading with Joe McNamara. My book, Chopstick Childhood in a Town of Silver Spoons captured the history of the Ming Quong Home, a Chinese girl’s orphanage in Los Gatos, Ca. During my reading when I read an emotional chapter, I happened to glance at Joe and there were tears in his eyes. A sight forever embedded in my memory. He was ‘a man with a caring heart.’ Am writing my 3rd book and there is a chapter portraying him.
      Nona Mock Wyman

  12. I grew-up with Joe in the Bronx. Wherever he is right now, more than likely he is hysterical. What a put-on!
    Rest in peace Joseph. Thank God that truck didn’t kill you as we played stick ball on 162nd St.

    • I first saw Chief McNamara on t.v. in 1982 while stationed at Fort Ord Ca. I knew that after my Army service that I would be a cop back home in Houston,Tx. I liked what I saw and heard. I remember when he asked Chief Gates to resign,wow! As I prepare to retire after 28 years in law enforcement, I would have liked to have met him once and asked him if his flowers were a passion on the scale of my obsession, luxury sports watches.

  13. In my opinion Chief Joseph McNamara was humble and caring human being who was responsible for humanizing our
    police dept. into becoming true servants for the citizens of our city. He is in heaven and he was my friend , I miss him
    and the many lunches we had together. I truly hope we meet again. Rest in Peace Joe.

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