R. Gil Kerlikowske, the former White House “drug czar,” has been confirmed by the Senate as the next head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which has approximately 60,000 agents and other employees, and an annual budget exceeding $12 billion.
Kerlikowske takes over from Deputy Commissioner Thomas Winkowski, who had been serving as acting commissioner of the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency for the previous year.
Kerlikowske is a veteran of local and federal law enforcement. Since 2009, he had served as director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a position often referred to as “drug czar.” Prior to that, he spent nearly a decade as Seattle’s police chief. According to The Washington Post, he was credited with helping reduce the city’s crime rate and with steadying the city’s police department following riots in 1999.
Before leading Seattle police, the U.S. Army veteran headed police departments in New York and Florida, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). He also served as deputy director in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in the 1990s.
Kerlikowske has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of South Florida.
Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, called Kerlikowske’s appointment an excellent choice, the Los Angeles Times reported in March 2014.
“His breadth of experience in law enforcement and drug policy prepare him well to take on this role,” Carper said.
According to CBP statistics, the agency’s officers processed more than 360 million travelers and 25 million cargo containers at the nation’s airports, maritime ports and other border crossings in fiscal year 2013. Border Patrol agents also apprehended more than 420,000 individuals, and seized about $106 million in unreported currency and 4.3 million pounds of illegal drugs.
“Over the past five years, CBP has implemented the most serious and sustained action in our nation’s history to secure our borders,” Kerlikowske said in prepared remarks during the Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona, in March. “Today, our borders are better staffed and better protected, and illegal crossings have dropped to near-40-year lows.”
However, the LA Times reported that some lawmakers have criticized CBP over incidents in which border agents shot individuals suspected of throwing rocks at them from the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. Elected officials say the agency has not provided clarity on its policy on the use of force and has not disclosed what, if any, disciplinary action has been taken against agents who violated the policy.
In his remarks at the Phoenix expo, Kerlikowske said recent changes to the rules on the use of force will balance “the importance of protecting the men and women of the Border Patrol and the responsibility to be transparent and accountable when force is used.”