In 2001 Kerlikowske made some errors in judgment that led to one death and several injuries, some critical during a Mardi Gras celebration. He did not take decisive action and allowed his second to order officers to pull back when the celebration started getting violent. However, Kerlikowske also accepted full responsibility for what happened and admitted that mistakes were made. Small comfort for those injured and the family of the young man who died, but at the same time decisions made in the heat of the moment are not always the right ones.
Kerlikowske also has a record for supporting fairly extreme gun control measures, something that I tend to have mixed feelings about. While I certainly see some gun control laws as critically important to public safety, I also believe very strongly in the right to own and in many cases carry firearms. Some of the discussion surrounding Kerlikowske's position on gun control has made me a bit uncomfortable. This is especially ironic, given that in 2004 he left his own weapon under the seat of his car while shopping with his wife - which ended up being stolen from the car.
There are a lot of other tidbits that do paint Gil in an unfavorable light, but ultimately I don't think you're going to find an effective chief of police anywhere that doesn't create a fair amount of controversy. And to counter the negatives, Kerlikowske has some very positive marks.
Gil Kerlikowske has a solid record for effectively supporting harm reducing public health measures. He changed the policy of having police officers watching needle exchange sites, a practice that previous to his administration was a matter of policy. He also instituted a policy of making misdemeanor cannabis arrests a low priority, even before I-75 passed in Seattle, a ballot measure reflecting the voting public's support for that policy. Seattle journalist Dominic Holden lays it out clearly (link above):
The bigger issue—and safer issue, politically—is replacing enforcement with public services. On that issue Kerlkowske has incubated a revolution. Seattle implemented two programs that get drug users off the street before they get arrested. Most notably, the Get Off The Streets (GOTS) program hatched in the Central District when Lieutenant John Hayes (now a captain) set up a table as an arrest-free area that people with criminal warrants could visit for health and human services.
“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 seized on the idea, passing legislation to fund the project permanently. “It was a stage where Gil could have stopped it from [getting funding], but he allowed it go forward,” he says.
I also really like Kerlikoswke because I am a very strong advocate for community policing, which he is as well. Under the Clinton administration he was director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services of the DOJ. During this time he developed a strong working relationship with then Deputy AG Eric Holder, now Obama's AG. He has fostered solid, positive community policing strategies in every police department he's worked in.
That pretty well defines my support for Kerlikowske. While he certainly doesn't support legalization, no one who does is going to get this slot. But Kerlikowske is a strong advocate for harm reductionist drug policies and seems to have a record for listening to the science and basing his decisions on evidence. But there are two very good reasons why I think Gil's the wrong choice for Director of Drug Control Policy.
First, he's a cop, not a public health expert. While I think his respect from law enforcement leadership across the U.S. is a major advantage, I still believe that having a public health expert in the field of illicit drugs would be a much better direction to go. Doing so would show a firm commitment on Obama's part that his desire to shift the focus of drug policy to public health is absolute. Appointing a police officer to the position, even one with a solid record on public health sends a very mixed message.
But most importantly, I think that Kerlikowske would be far more valuable in a law enforcement position that is in desperate need of new leadership. The DEA is in dire need of leadership that will reflect the priorities of the Obama administration. And there are several reasons why Kerlikowske would be a excellent choice for the role, not the least being - he has an interest in the position.
The respect he commands from the law enforcement community would be just as useful in the head slot at DEA, as it would as DDCP. This is an agency that often works in cooperation with local law enforcement, having a leader who is well respected by cops across the country would go a long way towards smoothing the often rocky relationships between federal and local law enforcement officers.
Kerlikoswke has a solid relationship with AG Holder. I have no doubt that he would also develop a fine relationship with the public health expert who should get the DDCP position, which in turn would help develop reasonable priorities for the DEA. But most importantly, Gil Kerlikowske has a solid record as a law enforcement leader. While he has listened closely to the communities he's worked in and public health experts, he is not a policy maker. He's a policy enforcer and top notch leader.
I suspect that Kerlikowske will make a fine DDCP. I definitely think his appointment signals a serious commitment on Obama's part to the shift of focus in drug policy. But I feel very strongly that Kerlikowske's skills would be far more valuable, focused on enforcement instead of policy.