CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A young man named Matthew Shaw is standing on a cobblestone sidewalk outside a well-kept townhome.
An older man emerges. His voice is gentle but self-assured, both inviting and commanding.
“Good morning, Matt,” he says.
At another time, the person in Matt’s position should have been intimidated, maybe even scared. Because the man addressing him is 67-year-old R. Gil Kerlikowske, former the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, then-President Barack Obama’s onetime drug czar, and years before that, Buffalo’s police commissioner. It would have been appropriate for Matt to respond formally: “Good morning, Commissioner. How are you today, sir?”
Good thing he didn't. Kerlikowske doesn’t want him to.
Shaw, a Harvard University undergrad, answered with a friendly "Hi, Gil,” and the two started walking toward the university.
Months earlier, when he was commissioner of CBP, Kerlikowske had 60,000 employees, a secure phone line in his D.C. home, and the responsibility to keep America’s borders safe.
Now, he has his wife, their dog, and this Harvard-owned townhome. And he has people like Matt.
And he's not complaining. Not even a little.
Plaudits in Buffalo, boos in Seattle
In Buffalo, where Kerlikowske was police commissioner from 1994 to 1998, he is best remembered as a change agent who won the respect of the city’s police union. Kerlikowske came to Buffalo after running smaller departments in Florida. He was the first police chief in decades to come from outside, and he arrived during a time of turmoil and transformation.
During his tenure under then-Mayor Anthony Masiello, Kerlikowske dealt with a record number of homicides in his first year, plus issues like crack cocaine and gangs. He closed aging precincts, which initially agitated some, but replaced them with more neighborhood-friendly stations. He updated technology in the precincts and equipped patrol cars with computers. He instituted mandatory, random drug testing for officers, and a policy of termination with no appeal for those who failed.
Kerlikowske wasn’t flashy, but he made headlines in atypical ways.
On Christmas day 1995, Kerlikowske and his wife Anna Laszlo were taking a late-afternoon walk on Elmwood Avenue when he saw a teenage boy swipe a purse from a woman. Kerlikowske flagged down a snowplow and ordered him to follow the thief while he clung to the side of the truck. When they got close, Kerlikowske jumped off the plow and chased the boy, who turned around and was eventually caught by the driver.
Incidents like that were not just fodder for the scrapbook his wife keeps; they also helped Kerlikowske win the respect of rank-and-file officers.
"The department was completely turned around," Robert Meegan, then head of Buffalo’s police union, told the Seattle Times in 2000, when Kerlikowske was a finalist for that city’s police chief position. When Kerlikowske was hired for the job, Meegan told the Times, “We had our disagreements, but morale in the department while he was here improved dramatically. A lot of officers were not happy to see him leave.”
Kerlikowske’s time in Seattle was a mix of plaudits and criticism. The crime rate dropped. He advocated the use of Tasers over lethal force, even publicly demonstrating the effect of Tasers by allowing himself to be shot by one for demonstration purposes.
In 2000, during a protest, he ordered his officers to wear “soft gear” – meaning normal policing uniforms – versus armored riot gear. He believed that having officers in regular uniforms would be less likely to incite the crowd.
Members of Seattle’s police union objected, pointing out that officers would be safer in hard gear. The next year, when crowds became raucous during Mardi Gras, he had officers in hard gear but was criticized for ordering them to stand down as people became violent.
At various points, critics called out Kerlikowske for being too easy on officers accused of misconduct. At other points, he was skewered for being too tough a disciplinarian. In 2002, 88 percent of Seattle’s union members gave Kerlikowske a no-confidence vote in the wake of the Mardi Gras riots and officers’ frustration that Kerlikowske was publicly disciplining officers.
But Kerlikowske stayed, built stronger lines of communication with the union, and remained in Seattle until 2009, when the new Obama administration lured him to the White House. Kerlikowske became head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy – Obama’s “drug czar” – and held that job until 2014, when the Senate confirmed him as Obama’s commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
Washington reporters quickly unearthed information about the drug struggles of his first wife’s son, whom Kerlikowske adopted as his own. He addressed the situation with no detail, other than to say he and his stepson hadn’t communicated in years. (This remains true; they haven’t spoken in two decades.) At his swearing-in ceremony, Kerlikowske said, “Our nation's drug problem is one of human suffering. As a police officer, but also in my own family, I have experienced firsthand the devastating effects that drugs can have on our youth, our families, and our communities.”
Cool under pressure
As head of CBP – the largest federal law-enforcement agency – Kerlikowske received a steady flow of complaints. He heard frequently, for example, from Hassan Shibly, a Buffalo native who is head of the Florida chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. During Kerlikowske’s tenure at CBP, Shibly filed multiple formal complaints about Muslim Americans being detained at border crossings, and regularly emailed Kerlikowske and his staff with anecdotes from his own experiences and others’ at the borders.
Kerlikowske responded to one of those emails and also attended a public forum at a mosque in Florida, which impressed Shibly.
“He’s very cordial, professional, personable,” Shibly said. “Approachable, too. You’ve got to give him credit for that, because frankly, not everybody at that level is approachable. I applaud him for taking the initiative to meet with us and engage.”
Shibly said CBP, under Kerlikowske, did not take enough tangible action to improve the experience of Muslim American citizens at the border. But then, he acknowledges the difficulty of making that happen. One of Shibly’s chief complaints is that border agents ask Muslims about their religious practices. He doesn’t feel that should happen; neither does Kerlikowske. But the commissioner cannot control the on-the-spot decision-making of thousands of officers in inspection booths.
“I get it,” Shibly said. “Look, I run an organization of 23 people, and I can’t make sure that everything runs according to how I want it. I get that problem… But I still don’t think they did enough.”
Given the nature of his jobs, Kerlikowske is well-acquainted with criticism. But he developed a reputation for keeping his emotions steady.
“You want to keep your thoughts kind of private when you’re in public,” he said. “Maybe later on you vent, or your family sees it affected you a lot more than the reaction. But you don’t build confidence in the department or in government when you over-react or you take things personally.”
That approach became Kerlikowske’s brand. “In any senior-level staff discussion at DHS, Gil was always one of the grown-ups in the room,” said his former boss, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.
“I’ve never seen him lose his cool,” added Johnson, who is now a partner with the Manhattan law firm Paul, Weiss, “including behind closed doors.”
Kerlikowske was not comfortable with some trappings of the job. For a time as drug czar, he had a security contingent of eight deputy U.S. marshals who cost taxpayers $2 million a year. Eventually, Kerlikowske dropped the detail and started taking the bus.
His friend Chuck Wexler, who is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, recalled catching him in the act: “One day I’m driving in on Massachusetts Avenue to work and I see this guy standing over by the bus,” Wexler said. “I said, ‘Geez, that guy looks just like Gil Kerlikowske.’ ”
Wexler has known Kerlikowske for more than two decades. Kerlikowske helped him get his job; Wexler has long been impressed by Kerlikowske’s leadership approach. He is “self-effacing and humble,” Wexler said, “but (has) the ability to make tough decisions.”
Life without the trappings
Kerlikowske retired from government service on the day of Trump’s inauguration and, days later, started a semester-long position as a fellow in the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
He no longer has a staff, but rather a small group of student liaisons. The liaisons work with the fellows, who come from government and media, to organize speeches, interviews and other events. On this morning, Shaw led Kerlikowske to a TV studio in Harvard’s library, where a student from the Harvard Political Review conducted an interview.
Later, Shaw and his fellow liaisons assisted with Kerlikowske’s study group, a weekly session held by each fellow. Wexler, his guest speaker, discussed how police departments are making changes based on use-of-force complaints. In the middle of the session, Kerlikowske’s wife stopped in with their dog Maggie, who promptly scampered up to Kerlikowske and licked his face.
It was a far different scene from the life Kerlikowske was leading months earlier, when his D.C. home was equipped with a secure phone that could, and did, ring anytime — and not with casual news.
“You never felt more relief than when they pulled the secure phone out of your house,” Kerlikowske said over coffee at a popular Harvard Square hangout.
“It’s ...” Kerlikowske stopped and allows a subtle laugh. “It's like, Okaaay,” he said, drawing out the last word like a sigh of relief.
“One day you’ve got everybody doing something for you,” Kerlikowske said. “The next day you’re schlepping your bags through the airport. You don’t forget where you came from.”
Kerlikowske was an only child in Michigan, born to a “mom who instilled in me a work ethic and a desire to be successful” and a dad who was an alcoholic. He remembers sitting on the back stoop at age 7 or 8 when a neighbor kid pointed to beer cans on the ground and said, “Your dad must have come home.”
“I remember having to go out on Friday nights with my mom to find him before he spent the paycheck at the end of the week,” he said.
His parents divorced when he was around 12 and he spent the rest of his childhood in Florida, where his mother, Norma, married a judge, Thomas Shands, whom Kerlikowske remembers as a “really courageous guy” and “a great mentor.”
By then, Kerlikowske was in the Army, which he followed by entering law enforcement in 1972. He started as an officer in St. Petersburg, Fla.; he peaked as CBP commissioner with 60,000 employees.
In Cambridge, he no longer is loaded with people or power. He likely won’t be in the future, either. The Kerlikowskes are heading back to Washington for the fall. He is serving on nonprofit boards for drug abuse and prevention, volunteering as an ambassador for the Human Rights First campaign, and beginning in January, will be back in the Boston area to teach a drug-policy class at Northeastern University.
He's a Democrat, but not political. He has opinions, and he'll share them. For example, ask him about Trump's border wall, and he'll point out that drugs are largely smuggled in through mail or ports of entry, not backpacked over the border. "Saying a wall would prevent drugs from coming into the country doesn't align with the facts," he said.
But he's already had that job.
Life now is Anna, the dog, volunteer service, and spending time with bright young people.
“Right,” Kerlikowske said. “And you know what? It’s perfectly fine.”