Joseph D. McNamara, a onetime New York City beat cop who earned a doctorate from Harvard and went on to become a California police chief whose pioneering embrace of community policing and diversity in the ranks helped catalyze broad changes in police practices nationwide, died on Friday at his home in Carmel, Calif. He was 79.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to a family statement.
Mr. McNamara, who headed police departments in San Jose, Calif., from 1976 to 1991, and in Kansas City, Mo., for three years in the ’70s, was known for the farsighted policies he implemented and for his iconoclastic outspokenness on a swath of law enforcement topics, often decades ahead of the pack.
Since the 1980s, he had openly criticized the federal government’s war on drugs, which he said filled prisons and squandered resources without putting a dent in the drug problem. He opposed mandatory sentencing laws and supported legalizing marijuana when few in his position were doing so. And his condemnation of gun manufacturers in the 1980s for their production of assault weapons and armor-piercing bullets led the National Rifle Association to attack him personally in full-page ads in Time and in Newsweek.
At the same time, Mr. McNamara was making changes in San Jose — then the nation’s 17th-largest city in 1980, and now 10th — that drew the attention of police professionals around the country.
A decade before the New York Police Department began experimenting with community policing in 1989, Mr. McNamara had tested those techniques in Kansas City and implemented them in San Jose. He trained San Jose officers in how to develop relationships with merchants, residents and community leaders in high-crime areas, promoting officers who accepted the changes and sidelining those who did not.
He recruited more minority group members into the city’s mostly white police force and rooted out officers who were the subjects of repeated excessive-force complaints. He was among the first chiefs to use neighborhood crime statistics in deploying officers and to install computers in police cars.
“He was about 20 years ahead of his time, and one of the most thoughtful people in the business,” said Jim Bueermann, the president of the Washington-based Police Foundation, a nonpartisan research center created by the Ford Foundation in the late 1960s to promote improvements in police policies. “His views were sometimes controversial, to say the least. But they stretched the thinking of everyone in the profession.”
Mr. McNamara’s views on drug policy, community relations, statistics and use of force, once considered almost fringe ideas, have entered the mainstream of police policy discussions, Mr. Bueermann said.
“It wouldn’t have seemed possible 20 years ago — how much we have evolved toward his thinking,” he said.
Mr. McNamara was born into a New York City police family on Dec. 16, 1934, in Manhattan. His father and brother were both police officers. After joining the city’s police force in 1958, he rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant while taking night classes at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, which awarded him his bachelor’s degree.
In 1968, he received a fellowship from Harvard University to study criminal justice. He went on to receive a Ph.D. in public administration there before returning to the police department.
He was a deputy inspector in charge of crime statistics analysis for several years before he was hired as the chief of police in Kansas City.
He is survived by his wife, Laurie; a son, Donald; two daughters, Lauren McNamara Barrus and Karen McNamara Rust; and four grandchildren.
During Mr. McNamara’s time in San Jose, the city grew enormously, overtaking San Francisco as the most populous in Northern California as it rode the Silicon Valley boom, and its crime rate in 1990 was the lowest of any city in the United States with a population of more than 400,000, according to the F.B.I.
In March 1991, when Los Angeles police officers were videotaped beating Rodney King after a high-speed car chase, Mr. McNamara was the only American police chief known to have publicly demanded the resignation of the Los Angeles police chief, Daryl Gates. The tape was evidence that brutality was ingrained in the city’s police department, he said.
“That tape has cast a cloud over the credibility of all police,” he said. “No one is going to believe you if you say it is just an isolated incident. It is self-evident that it couldn’t have been.”
His stand brought him into open conflict with the San Jose Police Officers Association, which, like other police groups around the country, criticized him as interfering in the investigation.
Mr. McNamara announced his resignation that April, telling The San Francisco Chronicle that the stress of the job and his history of heart trouble were factors in the decision. “I thought I was going to end up in the emergency room myself,” he said.
After resigning, he became a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, a conservative-leaning think tank. He also wrote five crime novels.
Writing in academic journals and mainstream newspapers, he was among the first to question the growing use of military hardware by local police departments, nearly two decades before the armored police response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., this summer over the police shooting death of an unarmed teenager.
He blamed the drug war for instilling a military mind-set in police departments, saying it undermined community policing.
“Simply put,” he wrote in a 2006 op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal, “the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on ‘officer safety’ and paramilitary training pervades today’s policing.”
Police work would always be dangerous, he wrote, “but this isn’t Iraq.”