A Brilliant Choice
In the first week of February, the news broke that President Barack Obama had tapped Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske to serve as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy—a position colloquially known as "drug czar." The choice looks perfect from many angles: Kerlikowske would be relieved from patrolling a third-tier burg, and we'd be relieved to unload Kerlikowske. Moreover, if confirmed by the Senate, our top cop—a liberal by national standards—could take Seattle's progressive approach to drug enforcement to Washington, D.C.
Under recent administrations' drug czars, the United States saw the steepest spike in drug enforcement in history. Between 1992 and 2008, drug arrests ballooned by 80 percent—but drug use still increased.
Kerlikowske is cut from different cloth. Since becoming police chief in August 2000, Kerlikowske has overseen some of the most aggressive reforms to drug enforcement allowed under federal law. Under his watch, arrests for misdemeanor pot possession have plummeted—from 332 people in 2000 to 148 in 2006, the most recent year for which information is available. Some of that decline is due to the voter-approved Initiative 75, which made marijuana enforcement the city's lowest law-enforcement priority. But while City Attorney Tom Carr campaigned against the measure for months, Kerlikowske did not actively campaign against it. And after voters passed the law in 2003, he went along with it; as an SPD narcotics captain told a city panel charged with reviewing pot enforcement, "Officers [have been] advised" that pot investigations and arrests were "to be their lowest priority."
Meanwhile, Kerlikowske's record on needle exchange—one of the top items on the new administration's drug agenda—is impressive. James Apa, spokesman for Public Health–Seattle & King County, says, "There has been long-standing support... from SPD for our continued operation of the needle exchange." The county public health department runs one of the largest needle-exchange programs in the nation, and local intravenous drug users have some of the lowest HIV-infection rates in the country. Kris Nyrop, former director of the needle exchange group Street Outreach Services, adds that under Kerlikowske, "the police basically leave needle exchanges alone."
Kerlikowske has also overseen a shift in drug policy from enforcement to treatment. Most notably, he allowed the Get Off the Streets program to hatch in the Central District in 2006. That year, then-lieutenant John Hayes (now a captain) set up a table in an open-air drug market where people with criminal warrants could visit for referrals to housing, health, and human services without risking arrest.
"That was, at that time, a very edgy approach, and the chief was willing to let one of his people staff the program," says City Council member Nick Licata, who soon pushed for legislation to fund the project. "It was at a stage where Gil could have stopped it, but he allowed it to go forward."
Although he isn't going to legalize pot, drug czar Kerlikowske could push to lift the federal ban on funding needle exchanges, stop the medical-pot raids in California, overhaul spending on antidrug commercials, and enthusiastically seek funding for drug-treatment programs.
The larger brilliance of Obama's pick for drug czar isn't just that Kerlikowske is open to new strategies, but that he is first and foremost a cop. Nobody can claim that Kerlikowske is a public-health nut who doesn't know the impact of drugs on the streets. Like many Americans, he agrees that drugs should be illegal. But he understands that both enforcement and public health have their place, and he's willing to take a look at new approaches when enforcement alone has failed. DOMINIC HOLDEN
Not a Done Deal
There's something ironic about this, but it might be best for pot-loving Seattle types to just keep their mouths shut about Kerlikowske's good qualities.
Kerlikowske is going to have to go through Senate confirmation. And even though the Democrats control the Senate, Republicans could still make plenty of trouble if drug-reform advocates hail Kerlikowske as the heroic lefty police chief from Seattle who bravely turned his back on pot smokers at Hempfest and gleefully obeyed the voters' mandate to ignore marijuana possession.
Think this is a little hysterical? Do you have any idea who's on the Senate committee that will oversee Kerlikowske's nomination? Oh, you know, just a few happy-go-lucky types such as Republicans Orrin Hatch, Jeff Sessions, and Lindsey Graham. Sure, they're not in charge of the committee—the man currently in charge is Patrick Leahy, the Democrat from stoner-filled Vermont—but still, a few Republicans with a handful of "Kerlikowske loves drugs" testimonials in their hands could do some serious damage during confirmation. ELI SANDERS
Sure, Kerlikowske may mean great things for drug reform in the Obama administration, but let's not forget the man's less-than-sterling record as head of the Seattle Police Department.
After taking the reins at SPD following the 1999 WTO riots, Kerlikowske quickly found himself at odds with the police guild. Kerlikowske's stand-down order during the Mardi Gras riots in 2001 was followed by dozens of injuries and the death of 20-year-old Kristopher Kime, who was beaten to death as police watched.
Growing resentment in the department over Kerlikowske's handling of the Mardi Gras riots led the guild to issue a vote of no-confidence in March 2002 and, ultimately, a long, sour relationship with officers.
While Kerlikowske has had a difficult relationship with the police union, the chief has always known how to play the media.
At a press conference promoting the chief's push for "nonlethal" weapons in 2004, Kerlikowske stood with then-president of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP Carl Mack while an SPD officer zapped them with a Taser.
Over the next four years, Taser deployment by officers steadily climbed. While the use of less-than-lethal weaponry undoubtedly saved lives, Taser use has also led to numerous claims of misconduct and several expensive lawsuits.
While suits against the department became recurring events under Kerlikowske's leadership, discipline of officers did not. Young black men such as Carl Sandidge, Aaron Claxton, Romelle Bradford, and Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes all faced serious mistreatment at the hands of Seattle police officers. But Kerlikowske—perhaps gun-shy after officers criticized him for publicly condemning an officer in 2002—refused to publicly criticize or cut loose any of the officers who were involved in the incidents.
Even in 2007, after the city council's police-oversight panel accused Kerlikowske of tampering with an internal investigation of two officers accused of assaulting and planting evidence on a wheelchair-bound man—an incident that led the NAACP to call for the chief's resignation—Kerlikowske sat by as the officers were transferred to low-profile jobs in the department's harbor patrol. Later, a sergeant involved in a record-setting excessive-force settlement was promoted, not disciplined, by the department.
In the last six months, Kerlikowske and Mayor Greg Nickels have proudly touted a 40-year-low crime rate in Seattle.
However, neighborhood groups have disputed the city's low-crime-rate claims, citing their own studies of police data. At the moment, Seattle is in the midst of a shockingly violent spike in gang-related crime. JONAH SPANGENTHAL-LEE
It's Not the Money
Mayor Nickels has consistently argued that Kerlikowske's salary—at just over $188,000, one of the highest in the city—is too low to prevent him from leaving for a better-paying job in the private sector. Nickels wanted to create a new position called "Executive 5" for Kerlikowske and former Seattle Public Utilities director Chuck Clarke—a change that, had the council approved it, would have enabled the police chief to make as much as $232,000 a year. The city council rejected Nickels's request, noting in a memo that Kerlikowske's salary was actually 14 percent above the market average.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy did not return calls seeking information about what Kerlikowske's salary might be. However, according to the Associated Press, the most recent permanent drug czar, John Walters, made $183,000 as of late 2006, a time when the Senate Appropriations Committee was pushing to reduce salaries and expenses at the agency. The upshot? Kerlikowske isn't leaving for the money. The city shouldn't use his departure as an excuse to seek an even more lavish salary for his successor. ERICA C. BARNETT