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Keeping the Peace : Joe McNamara, Chief of the San Jose Police Department, Is a Surprisingly Well-Liked Cop for Being a Harvard-Educated Gun-Control Advocate

August 10, 1986|JACQUES LESLIE | Jacques Leslie, a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent, is a writer based in Northern California

San Jose Police Chief Joe McNam ara left Harlem al most 20 years ago, but the habits he developed during his 10 years as a cop there have stayed with him. For one thing, he avoids carrying anything in his right hand: In the New York ghetto, he never knew when he might need it to draw his gun. And when McNamara pays someone a visit, he doesn't ring the bell; he stands to one side of the door (in case someone inside wants to shoot him through it), and he knocks. The knock is also a throwback to his years in Harlem. "We had many elderly people who unfortunately . . . would commit suicide by turning on the gas," he says. "You press the bell, that creates a spark, the whole place would blow up. So we knocked."

But McNamara also developed another, more revealing habit in Harlem: In his career as a beat cop, he never fired his gun at a suspect, even though he says he would have been within his rights to shoot on about 150 occasions. Despite such circumspection, or perhaps because of it, McNamara was never shot by a suspect, either, though he was stabbed "a couple of times."

McNamara's first arrest, when he was a 21-year-old rookie, was typical of his restraint: On patrol alone in Harlem, he spotted a crowd gathered around a man who had just been stabbed to death with a butcher knife. Suddenly, the murderer burst out of the crowd and began to run. McNamara chased him for several blocks, tackled him from behind, wrestled with him and finally forced him up against a wall. Only when McNamara got handcuffs on him and noticed that they barely fit around his wrists did he realize what he had been up against: The killer was huge--a good eight inches taller than the 5-foot-8 patrolman.

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.

TO ANYONE WHOSE IDEA of police work has been shaped by television's "Hill Street Blues," McNamara's office must be disappointing: Instead of Capt. Furillo's frenetic, gloomy lair, McNamara's office is bright and almost eerily quiet.

McNamara looks younger than his 51 years. He sits behind his oversize desk, speaking in a voice so soft that his visitor must sometimes strain to hear, and giving the impression that he has as much time as the visitor requires.

Yet the impression is deceptive, a sign not of lack of pressure but of McNamara's grace under it. An often fidgety man, McNamara suffers from insomnia, a malady he says he contracted in his first years as police chief in Kansas City. He turned to writing to cope with the insomnia, and he still begins some of his writing stints at 2 in the morning.

McNamara is, moreover, an unrelenting competitor. Says Donald Lucas, a Santa Clara County car dealer whose acquaintance with McNamara began on the tennis court: "He's a scrambler. He will not let a shot get by him, and I think he relates his police philosophy to his tennis court philosophy. He's just as tenacious as hell."

Says Hubert Williams, Newark, N.J., police director for 11 years and now president of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation, "McNamara is just a remarkable human being that we're fortunate to have in American law enforcement. I have known him for many years and have watched his career develop, and I have been extraordinarily impressed with his policing capabilities. To be specific, it's very easy for people who run police departments to go along with the wind. The perception is that you survive longer that way. But the thing about McNamara is that he's always had his feet on the ground and is willing to stand for principles."

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