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Seattle police chief is Obama's drug czar choice

President Barack Obama has chosen Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske to be the nation's drug czar and lead a stepped-up campaign against substance abuse.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama has chosen Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske to be the nation's drug czar and lead a stepped-up campaign against substance abuse, Vice President Joe Biden announced Wednesday.

Biden said the 36-year law enforcement veteran will bring to the task a lifetime of experience working on drug policy.

"There's no one more qualified to take on this job than the chief," Biden told a White House audience including other big-city police chiefs and advocates representing drug prevention and treatment organizations.

Biden said he was disappointed that during the Bush administration, the drug czar's office "hasn't gotten the attention that it should have." He added, "Substance abuse is one of our nation's most pervasive problems."

Kerlikowske, 59, said he looked forward to his new role and noted his professional and personal experience with the effects of drug abuse on young people and families. His stepson, Jeffrey, has an arrest record on drug charges.

Kerlikowske's nomination as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy requires Senate approval. If confirmed, he would take over for John Walters, who held the job under President George W. Bush.

Kerlikowske has been Seattle's top cop for nearly nine years and has been credited with reducing crime rates to record lows.

Before joining the Seattle force, he held top police positions in two Florida cities — Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie — and in Buffalo, N.Y. He then served in the Clinton administration as deputy director of the Justice Department office that promotes community policing.

The drug policy coordinator's office will no longer have Cabinet-level status, but administration officials said Kerlikowske "will have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made ... and full access and a direct line to the president and vice president."

Kerlikowske is viewed as a workmanlike, circumspect choice who has street perspective and the policy smarts to navigate the bureaucracy. As president of the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, he is known as a progressive and a proponent of community-oriented policing.

Colleagues expect him to ramp up efforts to stem demand for illegal narcotics by emphasizing prevention and treatment.

"I would expect Gil to say there's absolutely a role that enforcement plays, but what other things do we need to do at the community and the state and federal level on prevention and intervention in order to be successful?" San Jose, Calif., Police Chief Rob Davis, a friend of Kerlikowske's and vice president of the police chief association, told the AP in a recent interview. "If all we do is arrest people for drugs, we're missing the opportunity to get involved in the beginning and take people out of drugs. Gil gets that concept."

In the Clinton administration, Kerlikowske worked on ways to monitor grants the agency gave local police efforts, and he frequently emphasized analysis and data, looking for "ways to prevent crime rather than reacting to it," said Tim Quinn, acting director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Justice Department.

Seattle activists who work on drug-reform issues called Kerlikowske smart and reasonable, and noted his police department has largely abided by a voter-approved initiative that made marijuana possession the city's lowest law-enforcement priority.

Even at the city's annual Hempfest protest and festival, police arrested only a few people despite the open-air pot smoking, said Vivian McPeak, director of the event.

Kerlikowske told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in December that if he joined the Obama administration, "At my age, at this point in my career, I'd want something where you feel like you could make a real impact."