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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske May Be New Drug Czar

Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske is reportedly being considered for a cabinet-level position within the Obama administration, at least according to some unnamed sources. Those sources also hint that it appears as though Kerlikowske will be the next director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or “drug czar”. (ABC News now says it has confirmed this. -02/11/09 11:49)

Admittedly, Kerlikowske has had quite a bit of bad press in Seattle, especially over his handling of police misconduct issues. Most criticisms cite a tendency for being lenient towards officers who have had sustained findings of misconduct as determined by internal investigations performed by the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (SPD OPA).

Those criticisms came to a head in 2007 after an officer who was accused of severely beating an African American man outside of a local venue received a promotion instead of discipline. That result came about because the internal investigation into the complaint, which originally sustained a finding of excessive force, had run over a 180 day limit that results in an automatic finding of exoneration when expired. The city later settled a civil case over that beating.

Another well-publicized case in May of 2007, involving officers accused of lying and planting drugs, implicated Kerlikowske with accusations that the chief interfered in the subsequent investigation of the officers when he overturned recommended disciplinary recommendations for those officers. This case in particular pushed the mayor and city council to form panels to review the police oversight and disciplinary process. That resulted in a series of recommendations that were only partially implemented a year later… one of the dropped recommendations was that the 180 day cap on investigations be lifted.

There have been many upon many other cases where the chief has been accused of showing an obvious bias towards officers accused of abuses and misconduct though, as illustrated in part of the Seattle Post Intelligencer’s “Strong Arm of the Law” series of reports on undisciplined misconduct and findings of dishonesty that were reduced by the chief within the Seattle Police Department that ran in early 2008.

Kerlikowske has also been unabashed at times about defending officers who have been accused of excessive force, even when damning video footage accompanied such complaints. One such example was during an interview he did with KING 5 reporters over allegations of excessive force that he overturned. While viewing a tape of one of his officers hitting a man who was shackled to a chair in a hospital with his nightstick the chief remarked the the officer “clearly (used force) on a person who had already been fighting, to keep him in line from kicking the person who was walking by. I just think that's very obvious." ...after he had been handcuffed to a chair.

As for his stance on drug law enforcement, he has taken a stance against a referendum that made simple possession of marijuana the lowest priority for the law enforcement, which still passed by popular vote. Yet he has also indicated that he supports the notion that offering non-violent drug addicts treatment is a better alternative to incarceration, though not clearly nor forcefully so.

However, as a possible indicator of the direction he would take as drug czar, there was also the disturbing case of a raid performed on a medical marijuana clinic in Seattle that also resulted in police confiscating patient files and computers containing medical information... even though medical use is permitted in Washington state. The confiscation of personal medical records and disregard for the privacy of citizens that this case showed is certainly a dangerous precedent if such tactics were employed on a federal scale.

While community and drug law activists all say that, even though Kerlikowske is not amenable to drug law reforms, he is still likely to be an improvement over previous drug czars who have been aggressive about ramping up America’s war on drugs, there are signs that he could take that war in new directions that aren't so pleasant either.

But, should Kerlikowske’s abysmal reputation for lax discipline within his department and lack of respect for privacy laws be a detractor for his nomination to a cabinet-level post within the Obama administration?

Well, first of all, King County Executive Ron Simms’ abysmal record of tolerating human rights abuses within his own jail and the sharp criticisms over the mistreatment of animals in the county shelters didn’t stop Obama from nominating him to a high-level post within his administration, so why should a police chief who has been accused of turning a blind eye to police misconduct be a concern?

Snarking aside, Much of Kerlikowske’s reputation for overturning findings of misconduct and choosing to go against disciplinary recommendations made by internal affairs investigators may be due to issues well beyond the chief’s control.

An honest appraisal would find that his hands have been tied, in at least some cases, by a very aggressive and strong police union and a very biased civil service review board that consistently overturns disciplinary actions taken against police officers when they appeal disciplinary actions with the help of the aggressive police union in Seattle.

The result has been a number of penalties against the city that cost a great deal of money and an increasing number of precedents that favor the police union’s efforts to overturn findings of misconduct. This ultimately forced the chief to choose between imposing disciplinary findings he knows will be overturned and cost the city money in the process... or imposing very relaxed standards within the department to avoid tension with the strong police union that had previously imposed a vote of no confidence against him early in his term as chief.

It’s possible he had little choice but to let his officers run rampant over the civil rights of Seattle’s citizens, but he didn’t have to be such a staunch defender of those actions if he took them out of necessity. Nor did he have to be so ambivalent about disturbing charges of racial profiling against his department that still persist to this day.

But, ultimately, Obama will do what he wants. I know a small voice like mine wouldn’t make a difference in his choices for filling his cabinet with people who have questionable civil rights records or who have tolerated so much misconduct by those in their charge… so, I think I have no choice but to join the chorus in saying that while Obama could have done better than this choice… he also could have done a lot worse.

...But, I still wonder why I feel disturbed about this choice when I recall that similar things had been said about our previous president's choices and actions when he first got into office as well... that, well, at least he could have done worse as well.


Baltimoron said...

180 day ivestigatory time limit? Talk about some animals being more equal than others. Is there a single crime that has a six month statute of limitations for us non-cops?

Packratt said...

That's about as succinct a way as one could put it I suppose. That 180 day cap is a pretty big loophole, and the local police union makes sure that all its members are well aware of it.

Thank you for the comment.

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