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Police Chief Lessons Gave Kerlikowske Insight Into Protesters

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New commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Gil Kerlikowske talked to Steve Inskeep in his first extended interview on the use of force and controversial shootings by the Border Patrol.


On this day that we're reporting on violence overseas, we also have a story of an effort to contain violence at home. It involves the man in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol. Gil Kerlikowske says he's ordered reviews of controversial shootings by his agents, as we've heard elsewhere in today's program. It's his first extended interview on the agencies use of force.


Right now we're going to hear a lesson that this veteran cop learned from experienced. He used to be a big city police chief and Kerlikowske's 40 years in law enforcement include an explosive episode in Seattle.

Would happen in that case?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: So, it's to make - to try and collapse a long story, in Seattle they decided to hold the anniversary of WTO.

INSKEEP: The anniversary of WTO, a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization led to violent street protests. Kerlikowske became Seattle's police chief soon afterward. And then came the anniversary protest. Kerlikowske's response says a lot about the complexities of using force. The new chief did not want violent protests. So, he started by concentrating on what his officers wore.

KERLIKOWSKE: Rather than have all of our officers in very hard gear, helmets and masks and on and on. I was with them in the streets in soft gear.

INSKEEP: Meaning just uniformed police officers, looking like police officers.

KERLIKOWSKE: And working with the public and by the end of the night things had turned a little bit more difficult but we had the support and the resources. So, as the mayor said, he said, ah, this is great you could run for mayor.

INSKEEP: Police in soft gear walked among the people, worked the crowds and kept things relatively peaceful. But not quite everybody was satisfied.

KERLIKOWSKE: The Police Guild did a survey and said, you're really putting these officers at risk because they should have helmets and pads etc. And that stuff was all available and we had hardened officers available.

INSKEEP: Kerlikowske paid attention. Though he came to wish he hadn't. The next time there were troublesome crowds it was Mardi Gras. Police did not go out in soft gear, they went out heavily protected. So, the cops felt safer but somehow the crowd became harder to control. Scores of people were injured as violence spread. Women were sexually assaulted. One man was killed as police watched.

KERLIKOWSKE: Well, to tell you the truth it makes it pretty difficult when you're talking from behind a face shield with a gas mask, to engage with the public and say, look let's tone this down, let's calm things down, let's make sure that those people that need to be apprehended are arrested because of their intoxicated state, their level of violence etc. It's pretty hard to engage in those discussions when you're hardened up. I regret that - today. I should've stuck by my decision earlier, I didn't.

INSKEEP: Kerlikowske links all the trouble to that well-intentioned effort to protect his cops.

KERLIKOWSKE: And so, they were all in hardened gear and usually you don't - you're not all right out on the street, you're back. Well, while you're back the crowd is brewing, things are getting out of control. This is an alcohol fueled Mardi Gras. By the time you move in, with all of your platoons of officers, things are already in a very bad state. I would have been smarter to approach it with officer dressed as I was, in soft gear.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is so interesting. You're saying because they were hardened up, they were standing back...


INSKEEP: Like a military force ready to strike if necessary and so they weren't involved and things got out of hand.

KERLIKOWSKE: That's right.

INSKEEP: That is one of many police experiences Gil Kerlikowske thinks about today as he oversize Customs and Border Protection.

KERLIKOWSKE: You know, it's been my career, it's been my life for four decades.

INSKEEP: The Border Patrol is a very different force but like all police, it's an armed force amid a civilian population working to maintain order and enforce the law. Elsewhere in today's program and at, Gil Kerlikowske addresses the use of force on his new job. It's his first extended interview on the subject.

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