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Joseph McNamara: An appreciation

It’s a sad irony that we’ve lost Joseph McNamara just as the country has become engaged in a productive and overdue discourse about policing. McNamara, who passed away Friday at the age of 79, was an eloquent and engaging critic of the drug war, of reactionary and aggressive policing, and of the militarization of law enforcement long before those positions were popular.

McNamara’s voice was particularly important for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, he had 35 years of policing experience, rising through the ranks from beat cop in Harlem to police chief in both Kansas City, Mo., and San Jose, Calif. Second, because his politics were well to the right of most law-enforcement critics, McNamara held more sway with lawmakers and policymakers. From his post-retirement perch at the conservative Hoover Institution, McNamara was a lonely voice of dissent on the right in the 1990s (along with Milton Friedman), as the law-and-order faction moved to vastly expand the search and seizure powers of police, increase penalties for drug crimes, and infuse crime fighting with martial rhetoric and militarized weaponry.

But most importantly, McNamara wasn’t just a pundit. As a police chief, he actually implemented the de-militarization and community policing policies he advocated, and to great success.

McNamara began his career as a patrol officer in Harlem in the 1960s, where he walked a beat with one of the highest crime rates in the country. In an interview with me for my book a couple of years ago, McNamara said his time in Harlem affected the way he looked at policing for the rest of his career. “I can’t overstate how important it was for me to walk that beat,” he said. “It made me invested in the lives of the people who lived in those neighborhoods. I got to know them. It gave me a stake in their well-being.”

McNamara worked his way up through the NYPD, achieving the rank of lieutenant before accepting a criminal justice fellowship at Harvard. Under the fellowship, he studied the effects of a methadone clinic on his old beat, which spurred his interest in drug policy. He went on to earn a doctorate in public administration from Harvard. McNamara’s dissertation looked at how law enforcement handled drug use in the United States before and after the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act. After completing his doctorate, he returned to the NYPD as a deputy inspector in charge of crime analysis.

In 1973, McNamara was appointed police chief in Kansas City. There, he quickly learned that reforming law enforcement is as much about politics as it is about experience, training and policy. At one of his first press conferences, a reporter asked McNamara’s opinion about the city police policy of allowing cops to shoot at fleeing felony suspects. McNamara said he thought the policy was outdated and needed to be changed. He could see using lethal force against a fleeing suspect for a crime like murder, but he couldn’t endorse a blanket policy that allowed cops to shoot people suspected of nonviolent felonies. Then came the follow-up question: Was McNamara aware that his immediate predecessor, Clarence Kelley, favored the blanket policy?

“Kelley was a legend,” McNamara told me in our interview. “I got the job because he had just been appointed to replace Hoover at the FBI. So shortly after taking the job, I had just contradicted the most popular chief in the city’s history.”

A week later, a Kansas City police officer shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old fleeing a routine break-in at an empty home. McNamara did some research and found that his new city had one of the highest rates of police shootings in the country. So he changed the lethal force policy. That didn’t win him much favor with his new department. After three years in which he encountered tumult among the rank-and-file but results on the streets, he was appointed police chief for San Jose, Calif.

McNamara led the San Jose Police Department for 15 years. There he resisted the aggressive, militaristic trends brought on by the drug war in the 1980s. He embraced community policing, and showed little tolerance for misconduct and excessive force by his officers. By the time McNamara retired in 1991, San Jose had surpassed San Francisco to become the most populous city in northern California. And for the last three years of McNamara’s tenure, San Jose had the lowest crime rate of any big city (cities with 400,000 or more people) in the United States. In 1990, the crime rate in San Jose was 60 percent of the crime rate in San Diego, half that of San Francisco, and a quarter of the rate in Los Angeles. McNamara pulled this off with one of the smallest per capita police departments in the United States.

McNamara’s success in San Jose gave him credibility in the law-enforcement community, and his position at Hoover gave him credibility on the right. In an era when conservative pundits and politicians were issuing alarming (and unfounded) warnings about “superpredators,” suggesting we suspend habeas corpus for drug dealers (or that we just go ahead and execute them), proposing that we exile addicts on remote islands, and passing crime policies based on sports metaphors, McNamara was advocating restraint, community-oriented policing and respect for the Constitution. In my book, I wrote about one particularly compelling event he hosted at Hoover that predates today’s debate about police militarization by nearly 20 years. Here’s an excerpt:

Early Monday morning, the chief of detectives requests an urgent meeting with the police chief. At the meeting he tells the police chief that the department’s top narc, Detective Eveready, has gathered intelligence indicating that “Mad Dog Brown,” one of the city’s more well-known drug dealers, has obtained a large shipment of rock cocaine. Mad Dog, who is credited by police with killing a number of rival dealers after giving them a mad dog look, has said he will never be taken alive. The intelligence indicates that Mad Dog has obtained enough rock cocaine to supply the city’s drug users for a month. He is reportedly held up in a fortified apartment on the third floor of a public housing project and surrounded by colleagues armed with military-type assault rifles.
That was the scenario Joseph McNamara set up to kick off the afternoon panel he was moderating for a groundbreaking drug policy conference at the Hoover Institution. McNamara was a fellow at Hoover, a conservative think tank affiliated with Stanford University, and this conference was his baby. More than 100 police chiefs, judges, prosecutors, civil rights and civil liberties leaders, drug treatment professionals, and academics had gathered for the event, which was covered by C-SPAN. It was likely the first event of its kind — and if not, it was certainly the most high-profile. McNamara — who had 35 years in law enforcement — himself had become a critic of the drug war. But the Hoover name gave the event some credibility with conservatives and law enforcement officials. Speakers included Milton Friedman, former Secretary of State George Schultz, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier, Ed Messe, California Judge James Gray, San and Jose, California Mayor Susan Hammer . . .
McNamara’s co-panelists were Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet, San Jose Mayor Hammer, defense attorney Ron Rose, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser, former Santa Clara, California NAACP director Tommy Fulcher, and Robert Garner, of the Drug Abuses Services Bureau in Santa Clara.
After laying out the hypothetical, McNamara turned to Chief Parks. What was his next move? Parks responded that he’d attempt to verify the tip. If it checked out, he’d sent in the SWAT team. McNamara asked about the sort of ammunition the SWAT team used. Weren’t their bullets capable of going through walls? “They’ll go through a car engine two blocks away,” Parks answered. McNamara then changed the hypothetical. What if it wasn’t crack, but marijuana? Would he still send in an armed-to-the-teeth SWAT team? Parks said he would. What if it was a shipment of bootlegged Valium? Still with the SWAT team. Black market booze? SWAT Team.
Mayor Hammer was up next. What was her role in overseeing the police department? Would she be comfortable with her own police department conducting a heavy-handed SWAT in a crowded housing complex over illegal Valium? Hammer replied that her job was “to support the chief,” not to question him. If the raid had gone overly poorly with the public, she might go on TV to reassure the city. She added that she doubted such raids did anything at all to reduce the drug supply, that the raid needed to be carried out anyway. “I don’t know how you don’t do the raid and have any credibility with the community.”
McNamara then turned to DA Hallinan. He too said it wasn’t his job to question police tactics. Even if he thought the raid was too dangerous or an unnecessary use of force, he’d keep his opinions to himself. It just wasn’t his job to tell the police chief whether or not he thought a raid was appropriate.
McNamara also asked Sweet, the federal judge, if he’d sign a warrant to make the raid a “no-knock” in each of the various hypotheticals. Since Nixon first pushed the no-knock policy, politicians and police officials had stated over and over again that the tactic would be monitored and patrolled by the judges who would be required to sign off on the search warrants. Sweet said that while he worried about the drug war’s erosion of the Fourth Amendment, he and most judges typically didn’t second-guess or provide much scrutiny to affidavits requesting no-knock search warrants. After the fact, they might hear a defendant’s argument that contraband seized in the raid should be suppressed because the raid was unreasonable, but in his experience, judges rarely gave any consideration to whether the use of a SWAT team and paramilitary, “volatile entry” tactics were an appropriate use of force given the nature of the crime under investigation.
It went on like that. Even Glasser and Fulcher, the civil liberties activists, said they’d become involved only if they received complaints from residents of the housing complex about police misconduct after the raid. They likely wouldn’t devote any resources to criticizing the tactics themselves. Garner, the panelist with an extensive public health background and who ran Santa Clara’s, added that police in his community had never in his career consulted him about the extent of the drug problem in Santa Clara, be it about which drugs are most prevalent, which drugs present more of a public health threat than others, or what sorts of policies would best minimize the harm caused by addiction.
Finally, McNamara asked the panel: If the drug raid was a complete and total success, resulting in a confiscation of “Mad Dog’s” entire stash, with no casualties to police, suspects, or citizens, would it have any impact on drug abuse in your city? All but Chief Parks said no.
The police chief of the second largest city in America had just told the audience that he was willing to use extraordinary force to confiscate a supply of illegal drugs. It was a level of force that could well result in innocent victims, and indeed by that point already had, countless times. What’s more, he added that what drug he was pursuing and how much actual harm that drug caused had no relevance on the amount of force he elected to use. Every public official on the panel who had the power to check that decision then told the same audience that they had no interest in second guessing the chief’s decision. During a question-and-answer session after the panel, the public officials in the audience basically reaffirmed what the panelists had just said.
“It really showed the extent of the problem,” McNamara says. “You get this robot mentality with these officials. The mayor said she knew nothing about these raids, and didn’t want to know anything about them until they were over. The judge wasn’t interested in scrutinizing the raid until it was over — when any damage would already be done. Everyone else said it wasn’t their job to worry about it. And so you end up with this dangerous decision that gets made by people of lower rank with little training, with little incentive to care much about constitutional rights, with no oversight — no checks or balances. Collateral damage is just part of the game.”
In a paper on the conference McNamara later submitted to the International Congress on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, he concluded: “The session revealed that public officials, judges, mayors, district attorneys, police chiefs, public health directors, and community leaders rarely, if ever, meet as a group to discuss urban drug control goals and problems. And they never meet to discuss police drug raids unless something goes awry . . . Each of the panelists indicated a sensitivity to problems of drug control, appropriate police conduct, and public safety but felt that his or her role was basically compartmentalized.”

McNamara continued to speak out on hot-button police issues over the years, from Prop 19 to Sean Bell to Amadou Diallo to Abner Louima to “three strikes” laws to the realpolitik of statistics-based policing. He’s been an outspoken advocate of policies that emphasize community-oriented policing and restraint, of ending the drug war, and of drawing down on militarization. He was one of the first on the political right to advocate for restoring the voting rights of nonviolent felons. He has written candidly about racial bias in policing, and was warning about government snooping on electronic communications back in 1999.

I haven’t always agreed with him. I’ve always been particularly puzzled by this column, for example. I also thought McNamara gave far too much credit to “broken windows” policing, and had far more tolerance for policies like stop-and-frisk than is warranted. But even here, McNamara’s time walking a beat in Harlem infused him with an appreciation of the effects those policies have on minority communities and on the relationships between those communities and the police. It’s clear that he supported those policies because he believed they worked — that is, they protected those communities from crime, and led to a better standard of living. So he’d struggle to reconcile his empathy for the innocent victims of a policy like stop-and-frisk with his belief that the policy is still a net gain for black communities, as he does in this column. Agree with him or not, there was never any doubt that McNamara had considered how a policing policy affected people on both sides of the badge.

McNamara’s last column was a response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the police reaction to the subsequent protests. McNamara had been in poor health for several years. I have no idea if he knew this would be his last column, but it’s certainly a fitting coda to his career as a public intellectual. It’s also rather moving. The column draws upon the first major crisis McNamara encountered as a law enforcement leader — the fatal officer-involved shooting of a 15-year-old shortly after he took the job in Kansas City — before turning to Ferguson.

I was then the youngest big-city police chief in America, having just arrived from New York City, where I had been a deputy inspector in the New York Police Department during a high-crime period. But I had no real honeymoon in Missouri.
Just a few days after I took charge, on a crystal clear day in 1973, a uniformed officer responded to a daylight break-in of a home. The officer raised his shotgun and fired at a youth running away. He killed Rory Lark, age 15, unarmed and slight, at 115 pounds.
The Kansas City Star filled its entire front page with an image of Lark, an angelic school photo of the youngster who looked to be a skinny 10-year-old. If you had a heart, you had to be touched.
If Lark had received any punishment, it would likely have been a week in juvenile hall. As a gesture of sympathy to the black community, I attended his funeral in civilian clothes. The officer was reprimanded and transferred.
Reasonable people, black and white, didn’t want to hear how the law was complicated, or how a new chief was not responsible for the boy’s death. So we waited through the night to see if the city would burn. It didn’t. The next day, however, pickets appeared in front of police headquarters demanding, in none-too-polite language, that I should go back to New York.
Kansas City’s black community wanted to know, Why had this boy died for a nonviolent crime? My police department responded quickly: He should not have been fired upon.
I reminded the media that I had announced in my first news conference as chief that I didn’t believe officers should use their firearms unless there was imminent danger to human life. I planned to rewrite the firearms policy, I had declared, so that officers were officially ordered not to fire except under those circumstances.
As soon as possible, we announced the official new policy. It prohibited police officers from firing at unarmed suspects. We cut back on all police use of military gear. 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.
The Lark shooting, remarkably similar to Ferguson today, offers lessons we can learn.

The bit about attending Lark’s funeral is particularly striking. Note McNamara’s social awareness here, and his willingness to humble himself to comfort the boy’s family. McNamara felt obligated to attend the funeral, yet recognized the offense he might give by attending in uniform. Yes, it’s small gesture. But it’s a gesture that reveals an abundant capacity for empathy — a trait too often lacking in modern policing. McNamara’s final column goes on to advocate for demilitarization, transparency, and the use of body cameras. He then included this line:

Officer safety should never supersede democratic policing, where police officers adhere to their role as public servants willing to take reasonable risks to protect and serve.

That too is a sentiment often lost in modern policing.

On a personal level, I’ve run ideas by McNamara over the years, and have asked him for comments and criticism of my work. He was always eager to help. He was kind, gracious and gregarious, even when pointing out where he believed I was misguided. That’s also the approach he took with those with whom he strongly disagreed, which is probably why he was so effective as an advocate. His opinions were backed by experience, and he rarely resorted to cheap shots or posturing to advocate them. Today, we’re seeing so many conservative intellectuals and politicians embrace criminal justice reform, decry police militarization and advocate prison reform that it’s easy to forget there was a time when voices like McNamara’s were almost nonexistent on the right. There’s no question that his leadership was the seed for groups like Right on Crime, or for the positions staked out by politicians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

McNamara was a powerful voice for drug-policy reform, a role model for effective, community-oriented policing, and a man who advanced those causes with intellectual honesty and integrity. His death is a loss for drug war reformers, for law enforcement and for civil public discourse in general.

He did at least live long enough to see some real progress on the issues for which he had advocated for most of his life. I hope that in his last days, he understood he could take credit for some of that progress. I hope he knew that he had made a difference.