We’re used to cerebral soldiers. Every American generation has given us a sprinkling. Contemporary generals are expected to be tough and irrepressible. They are also expected to be thoughtful and, increasingly, humane. Not so our cops—or at least not until very recently. If an American police chief has had a philosophy, it has been the stuff of no nonsense, one with which he has presided over an armed workforce that keeps order in a Manichaean world.
Last week I attended a memorial service for a man—a cop—who was a glorious exception, a philosopher-policeman. He was Joseph D. McNamara, a man who had been chief of the San Jose Police Department from 1976 to 1991. He retired from the force just days after calling for the resignation of Daryl Gates, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, four of whose officers had savagely beaten an unarmed black man named Rodney King —an act of violence, caught on tape, that came to be seen as the nadir of American policing.
McNamara had been one of a very few senior American police officials who had condemned Gates in public. In an op-ed on these pages, written in April 1991 while he was still running the San Jose Police Department, McNamara said that “the videotape of the LAPD brutality affects the credibility of all police officers. It has cast a cloud over policing that won’t be lifted until police chiefs drop their own code of silence and speak out against one of their own’s peculiar philosophy of policing.”
McNamara died on Sept. 19, of pancreatic cancer. He had, in the time since his retirement in 1991, been a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford (where I was his colleague for the past seven years). He wrote prolifically—op-eds for newspapers, this paper in particular, and crime novels of a lively (and sometimes best-selling) flavor. His obituary in the New York Times recognized him as the “father of community policing” in this country, which he was indisputably; but he was also much more.
In an email to me, Ray Kelly , until recently the chief of the New York Police Department, described McNamara as “a visionary leader in law enforcement at a time when they were in short supply. Starting as a beat cop in Harlem in the 1950s, he became a scholar and an advocate for progressive policing throughout the country. Never afraid to speak his mind, he was the most influential police officer-academic of his time.”
Although McNamara received a Ph.D. in public administration from Harvard (having earned his bachelor’s degree through night classes at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice), he started his life on the force pounding the streets of some of America’s toughest precincts. Perhaps for that reason, and from beat experience acquired the hard way, he believed in the stop-and-frisk policing policy that lately has been demonized in New York and beyond. McNamara saw stop-and-frisk as a policy that benefits, on balance, the communities in whose midst it is practiced. He supported it for utilitarian reasons: In inconveniencing (or worse) a few citizens, it increased the safety of a much larger number. Yet he was alive to its political flaws as a policing tool.
McNamara was only 39, and not long out of Harvard, when he left the NYPD to become police chief of Kansas City, Mo. “I was then the youngest big-city police chief in America,” he wrote in his last essay before his death, an op-ed for Reuters on the events in Ferguson, Mo., in which an unarmed, young black man was shot dead by police. In the piece, McNamara recalled a very similar incident that occurred only a few days after he took charge in Kansas City, “on a crystal clear day in 1973.” An unarmed 18-year-old black man had been killed by a uniformed officer as he fled the scene of a daylight break-in at a home.
Following the shooting, and despite fierce opposition from his own ranks, McNamara instituted a form of policing that called on officers to be more sensitive to the people they policed, to work closely with leaders, churches and the like, and to be respectful of the citizens they were paid to protect, especially those from ethnic minorities. This was a radical idea, and deeply resented by the force. Speaking at McNamara’s memorial, Chris Moore, a retired San Jose police chief, said that “ Joe engaged the community in a way that no police chief had done to date. He believed that to have legitimate policing in a democratic society, you had to have the consent of the governed.” Today, “community policing” is America’s default mode, however imperfectly it may be practiced.
McNamara also was ahead of his time in other ways. He created a rotation policy at the San Jose Police Department, where he arrived after three years at Kansas City. Officers weren’t allowed to take root in departments, where they ran their own fiefs and kept younger officers out of fresh avenues of experience. He revolutionized the practice of promotion, instituting a “rule of 10,” which allowed him to fill positions by choosing from the 10 most senior available candidates. This enabled him to pick more recently recruited ethnic-minority officers for promotion, and had a salutary effect on police and community relations.
He also had some of the strictest rules in America governing the use of deadly force by officers. After the young man was shot in his first days as police chief at Kansas City, McNamara shredded the department’s policing manual. He didn’t believe that officers should use their firearms unless there was imminent danger to human life. His officers were ordered never to fire except under those circumstances, a command that sprang from the depths of his own morality and from his personal practice as a cop.
In November 2006, a black man called Sean Bell was shot dead by NYPD officers who fired 50 rounds at him. It was an incident that inflamed New York, and brought back memories—still raw in the black community—of the shooting in 1999 of Amadou Diallo. Writing on these pages, McNamara said, “After the Diallo case, I wrote that I, my father, older brother and countless other relatives had collectively served the NYPD for more than a century and a half and that none of us would have fired at Diallo. I say the same about the lethal volley that took Mr. Bell’s life.”
McNamara remained an implacable foe of the way in which American policing became the heavily armed affair that it is today. In the aftermath of the Ferguson episode, he called on American police forces to “recalibrate current militarization policies, in which officer safety is paramount. The fundamental police duty is protection of life. Officer safety should never supersede democratic policing.” He went on to ask, “What justification do the police have for killing an unarmed suspect? The answer is always: None.”
In all these respects, Joseph McNamara, described by a succession of retired police chiefs at his memorial as being “20 years before his time,” deserves to be recognized not just as America’s foremost philosopher-cop, but as one of the most consequential American policemen of the past 50 years.
Mr. Varadarajan, a former editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.