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Sunday, August 12, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blue Grit: After rough first year, Police Chief Kerlikowske is still standing

Seattle Times staff reporter

The man in charge of maintaining law and order in Seattle would like it known that reports of his professional demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, besieged almost from Day One of his tenure, is referring to the rumor that he will resign this month. Similar rumors circulated all summer through the labyrinth of the city's Public Safety Building.

Kerlikowske opened a recent meeting with parking-enforcement officers with this: "It's August. I'm not resigning. In September, I'm not resigning." Then he added: "Let's start our own rumor."

There was twittering. Clearly, some in the room were won over; and if not won over, at least open. It's how his leadership ticks. He does not convert the masses en masse, but rather one person, one encounter, at a time. It is a quiet creeping.

For some in his ranks, it's not creeping fast enough.

The main grousing about Kerlikowske has been along these lines: The new chief has not made himself known to the troops. He is not dynamic. And he is more politician than police officer. The men in blue wanted a messiah and got a manager.

But after a tumultuous first year — from a plunge into the racial-profiling storm to a public apology over the Mardi Gras riots — even some of his harshest critics seem to be softening.

Many black community leaders have settled into a wait-and-see position, and the police-union reps who were demanding his head five months ago have extended a conciliatory hand.

"We all make mistakes," said Stuart Coleman, vice president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. "He has shown flexibility and powers of self-examination, an openness to constructive change. I mean, heavens to mergatroid, if he can survive all this and move on, I think he's got great potential."

The bruising came fast and furiously after his swearing-in last Aug. 14. The honeymoon was scrapped; he walked from the ceremony straight into the brawl.

The angriest exchanges have been about race. There have been claims of de-policing — a lessening of aggressive law enforcement — and low officer morale that fueled talks earlier this year of a no-confidence vote against the chief.

"In meeting after meeting, he has been vilified and pilloried in a way that no person ought to endure," said Hubert Locke, professor emeritus of public affairs at the University of Washington, and a member of the mayor's Mardi Gras task force.

After the Fat Tuesday riot, and the Nisqually earthquake that followed like an exclamation point, Kerlikowske received a long-distance call from his 77-year-old, Hungarian-born mother-in-law.

"Geeeel," she fretted. "Did you pick the wrrrrong city?"

He says no. He is here for the long haul "unless they run me over with a steamroller."

The man has plans. He would like to streamline the department, make it more focused. He would like to replace the "siege mentality" within the ranks with an new openness to minority communities and the news media.

He expects resistance. More bruising will come.

Mild temper, droll humor

Kerlikowske doesn't look like a guy who has taken a beating. He is tanned and ruddy-faced, bright around the eyes. He is a clean-cut man of 51 who, back when he did triathlons, probably cut a fine, athletic figure.

Today, the sinewy lines have more curve. The blocky angles of his face show a slight sag.

His hairstyle is pure government-issue: prim and practical. His face is sympathetic. It's the way the eyebrows arch upward toward the center of his forehead, as if he were feeling your pain.

When he isn't being watched, his face lapses into an expression of melancholy. He looks sad, and often uses the word. The incident in which Mayor Paul Schell was blindsided by a megaphone-wielding man was "very sad." The overdosed woman whose life Kerlikowske saved by applying CPR had "a sad story."

His wife of nearly six years, Anna Laszlo, a public-policy analyst, says her husband doesn't get riled, he gets pensive. A dent in the wall of his office, however, indicates some gunpowder. Look behind the thick biography of Winston Churchill and you will find a hole made by an object flung across the room.

"Paperweight," he admits. A bad day.

"I've had one or two."

His humor is droll, the delivery, deadpan. The voice, a kindly drone.

In February, when a motorist ran a red light and collided with Kerlikowske's police cruiser, the chief said it was "the way I like to meet people." When one of his commanders was explaining the department's new-fangled mobile computers, the chief asked if they made lattes.

At the start of one of his endless meetings, he told the crowd that he preferred to sit rather than stand because he did not want to be so intimidating. No smile.

He is tall but not imposing. A framed picture in his office of then-President Clinton standing next to a younger Kerlikowske shows that he is about the same height, 6 feet 2 or 3 inches. On most days, he wears his uniform.

He puts in 70-hour workweeks; his annual pay is $140,000. He has taken two days off since moving to Seattle, once to walk down the aisle with his 26-year-old daughter, Kim, in Colorado, and again to escort his mother around Seattle.

Laszlo is smart and energetic, the gregarious yin to his reserved yang. They live in a handsome Craftsman on Queen Anne with a blind 16-year-old Yorkshire terrier named Amelia.

They are, Laszlo says, homebodies and "public-policy geeks" who spend free time reading about government, then talking about it.

When it comes to her husband, "what you see is what you get," says Laszlo. By her accounting, he is quiet and thoughtful, the ultimate nice guy who commits random acts of kindness, believes in community and is unwavering in his devotion to policing.

Those who know him — and he has a national following — say his strength doesn't come in dominating the discussion or flexing his titular muscle; it comes from his single-mindedness, from seeing the object of his desire and moving relentlessly, if ploddingly, toward it. His is the strength of a distance runner who quietly catches you down the stretch. Suddenly and without necessarily wanting to, you are following.

Bringing order to chaos

All he's ever wanted to be, according to both mother and wife, is a cop.

As a young boy in Fort Myers, Fla., he would visit his stepfather, a circuit judge, at his office, and hang around law-enforcement types. He would listen to them talk about cases. The young Kerlikowske found it exciting and also strangely intimate. His biological father was alcoholic, and Kerlikowske was an only child. The police department, he observed, "was like a family."

During high school, he worked weekends as a crime-scene photographer for local police. He was sworn in as a cop in St. Petersburg in 1972, started on the streets and worked his way up the ranks, eventually becoming chief in two small Florida towns before landing the top job in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1994.

In his first year, Buffalo had a record-high number of homicides. It was the fifth-poorest city in the country, and the police department was a wreck.

The Rev. Leslie Braxton, head minister of Seattle's Mount Zion Baptist Church, lived in Buffalo during Kerlikowske's tenure.

"We could not get members to come out to church for choir rehearsal because they were afraid. Seniors refused to leave their homes for fear of being shot," said Braxton. "The city put a military tank on Genesee (Street) to scare the drug dealers, but they urinated and spraypainted on it. We were demanding that police end the anarchy.

"He (Kerlikowske) walked into that environment, and he did. He ended it."

Kerlikowske, the first outsider hired in 30 years, gained the support of a skeptical union, rallied grass-roots and minority groups, boosted morale and modernized the department. Crime rates declined and officer morale climbed. Choir members went to practice.

He showed a willingness to make unpopular command decisions, such as instituting random drug testing within the force.

Kerlikowske left Buffalo in 1998, exhausted, and moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as the community-policing administrator for the Department of Justice.

When he donned the Seattle Police chief uniform last August, the department was still recovering from the fallout over WTO and Chief Norm Stamper's sudden resignation. Tensions were high between the department and a vocal segment of the black community over the police shooting of John David Walker, an armed, mentally ill black man who was killed as television cameras rolled. Cries of racial profiling and poor police accountability had kept the department off-balance.

It has since been trapped by one crisis after another. In November came N30, the anniversary of WTO. February brought Mardi Gras, and April, the fatal police shooting of Aaron Roberts, another black man.

Kerlikowske inherited a troubled department, and it has remained troubled.

"He's been here a year, and I haven't seen anything change dramatically," said Owen Burt, a 25-year Seattle police veteran who has served under five police chiefs. Translation: He hasn't done anything.

In his biggest test, Mardi Gras, he did more of nothing, the grousing goes. In the last hours of Mardi Gras, as a drunken mob assaulted bystanders at random, police commanders pulled back rather than close in. In the end, more blame was placed on Kerlikowske than on the thugs who killed one man and injured scores of others.

In the subsequent uproar, the chief commissioned a study of police actions that night. The report concluded that commanders had made the wrong call. Kerlikowske apologized and set about planning adjustments to avoid a repeat.

Critics were impressed by his dignified public humbling.

Those same critics concede that Kerlikowske, and by extension, the department, faced a lose-lose situation.

"Had we gone into that mess to stop it, it would have been very, very bad," said Eric Michl, a 17-year veteran. "There would have been seriously injured or dead cops, suspects or both. And with so many of the suspects being black, a lot of controversy would have followed."

Gradual changes

In his own defense, Kerlikowske says making meaningful changes in the department, ones that will endure, takes more work than people realize. From his office on the 10th floor, he points toward Elliott Bay. "It's like those tankers. They don't turn like speedboats."

To date, he's helped lead efforts to study racial profiling and better ways to review police actions. He's armed officers with more nonlethal weapons and modern mobile computers. He's building a specialized command team to respond to officer-involved shootings, and crowd-control squadrons to handle large events.

He's attended more than 160 community functions, spending many of his evenings in the neighborhoods. Tomorrow, which happens to be his wife's 50th birthday, the department will be handing out the first of 50 annual awards to citizens who have helped police, something he instituted in Buffalo.

He likely will not get much press for these. The public will focus on problems and mistakes. That's part of the job, and part of the problem facing police chiefs and departments across the country. Policing, once a respected profession, has become embattled.

Departments nationwide are struggling to attract new recruits and chiefs. Houston has 450 vacancies; Atlanta, more than 500.

In Seattle, the department is 59 short of its budgeted 1,260 officers, although recruits in training will narrow the gap.

In addition, fewer officers are testing for leadership positions such as sergeants and lieutenants. When the chief's job came open after Stamper's resignation, none of the assistant commanders applied.

"The politics of being chief have become so insane," Assistant Chief John Diaz told The New York Times. "No one wants the job."

It was into this stormy vacuum that Kerlikowske entered. The first 12 months, at least in the public view, have been mostly grief, but not all.

Every day he gets five or six letters from people who want to say thank you for something an officer has done — like saving a life or driving armed drug dealers off a street corner. He tries to answer them all, but can't, the job being what it is.

To those people, the man in charge of law and order in Seattle would like to say, "Hey, you're welcome."

Reach Alex Tizon at 206-464-2216 or atizon@seattletimes.com.

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