Community Policing Defines Nominee to Lead Drug Office

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ten months after R. Gil Kerlikowske became Seattle's police chief, two of his officers arrived at the home of JoAnna McKee, where she ran a co-op giving medical marijuana to patients and teaching them to grow their own. Neighbors, the police told her, had been complaining. Soon, a "cease and desist" order was tacked to her door.

But instead of shutting down the Green Cross Patient Co-Op, Kerlikowske's director of police-community partnerships made a suggestion: Move it from her West Seattle house to a commercial area. She found a nearby storefront, and under Washington state's medical marijuana law, people could once again bring doctors' orders to get relief from pain. "The police could have come in here like gangbusters," McKee said. "But they didn't. It was a case of let's see whether we can work this out so everybody could get what they want."

That episode the summer of 2001 typifies the approach to illegal drugs that Kerlikowske, nominated by President Obama to lead the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, has displayed during nearly nine years as Seattle's top law enforcement officer. In a city with greater tolerance for drugs than much of the United States, he has seldom bucked the prevailing local sentiment. Seldom, though, has he been out front.

In his 20s, he worked as a scraggly-haired undercover narcotics cop in his native Florida, trying to get users and dealers off the streets. He has an adopted son with a history of addiction and crimes. Years after others in Seattle's legal community began pushing for it, he has been talking lately about alternatives to drug arrests.

According to legal and community leaders in Seattle familiar with his work, his views are in sync with the drug policies Obama has said he will pursue: a reorientation away from the Bush administration's intense focus on curbing the supply of illegal drugs and toward greater emphasis on preventing and treating addiction. As drug policy director, he would oversee a staff of more than 100 and a $440 million budget. In particular, Kerlikowske has supported King County's drug court, one of the most active in the country, which gives people arrested on drug charges a chance at treatment rather than jail.

Yet in Seattle and three other cities where he has been chief, community policing -- not drug policy -- has defined Kerlikowske's career. The word "drugs" is not in a list of accomplishments on the police chief's Web site. When word began spreading last month that he might be chosen for the White House job, Bruce Chamberlin, a friend and admirer since both were police chiefs in Upstate New York, called to congratulate him. "He was studying up on all kinds of things," Chamberlin said, "because he felt he had a way to go to get up to speed."

Kerlikowske, 59, is, people who know him say, intellectual, a relatively soft-spoken figure who shows up at countless community meetings day and night. Most of all, "the chief is pragmatic," said state Rep. Roger Goodman (D), who is a consultant to the King County Bar Association's drug policy project, which advocates for marijuana to be regulated and taxed.

In 2003, Seattle residents placed on the ballot an initiative to make marijuana possession the Police Department's lowest priority. John P. Walters, the Bush administration's drug policy director, flew out to lobby aggressively against the initiative. Kerlikowske opposed it, too, but more mildly. The law was needless, he argued, because his officers already deemphasized marijuana arrests. It passed anyway.

"We believe it speaks to the man's integrity that after it became law, he chose to follow it," said a statement issued following Kerlikowske's nomination by the producers of Seattle Hempfest, a two-day "protestival" that bills itself as the world's largest gathering to support legalizing marijuana. City police are assigned to the event, where people smoke openly, but arrests are rare.

Growing up in Fort Myers, Fla., Kerlikowske was drawn to law enforcement early. In high school, he worked part time for the local sheriff's department, fingerprinting prisoners and photographing crime scenes, according to a White House official familiar with his background. His mother worked for a judge, and he met officers and detectives when he visited her after school. He entered the Army and became a member of the military police, providing security to the presidential helicopter while Richard M. Nixon was in the White House.

In Florida, he joined the St. Petersburg Police Department and became a detective quickly. His police partner in vice and narcotics, Hal Robbins, said they made drug buys and arrests. "We talked about the fact it's an issue that's so large you can't ever hope to arrest your way out of it. So you are looking at . . . treatment, prevention and enforcement."

Kerlikowske has made no secret that he has seen drug's damaging effects firsthand. He adopted his first wife's son, Jeffrey, at age 2. Jeffrey Kerlikowske, now 39, dropped out of high school, moved out of the house and has been arrested repeatedly on drug and other charges since he was 18, police records show. The father and son have not been in touch since 1995, sources said.

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