United States Customs and Border Protection Commissioner and St. Petersburg College alumnus R. Gil Kerlikowske was the featured speaker at St. Petersburg College’s Public Policy Leadership Speakers Series luncheon on May 21.
About 125 people attended the event, including local law enforcement and politicians, SPC administrators, faculty and staff. The 64 bachelor’s degree students in SPC’s Public Policy Administration program were the focus of the event, asking the commissioner questions about drug policy, human trafficking, border security and more.
Kerlikowske reflected on his four decades of law enforcement and drug policy experience, including teaching as an adjunct professor in Florida, New York and Seattle.
“That ability to give something back and spend time with students is just so critical,” he said. “I think that there was nothing more helpful in my career than to be able to serve as an adjunct and to be able to interact with students — to have that kind of discussion and dialogue. It really keeps you fresh.”
He gave a brief history of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency that was created in 2003 as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. The new agency combined the efforts of agricultural inspectors; U.S. Border Patrol and Customs; and Immigration and Naturalization Services.
The goal was to have one face at the border. The challenge, he said, was to respond to the wide range of responsibilities — from managing counterfeit honey from China to the rise of Syrian foreign fighters in the U.S.
“The issues in front of Customs and Border Protection is like being in a tennis match – going back and forth from one issue to another on this wide array of responsibilities,” he said.
During his time working as Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Kerlikowske said he learned that effective drug policy includes enforcement, quality prevention and treatment.
“I wish as a police chief I had the knowledge of drug treatment holistically from a public health perspective that I did when I took over at ONDCP,” he said. “We actually began to change the debate from ‘this is purely a criminal justice problem to this is a health problem.'”
Kerlikowske’s advice to the students was clear:
“For you that are students … the mentorships you have is everything,” he said. “You can be the smartest student in the world. You could do the best whitepaper on the subject. You could do the best PowerPoint, etc. But your ability to work with others and cooperate to figure out how to compromise — to figure out how to work as a team in order to accomplish a mission is the benefit that truly you will get here.”
Kerlikowske’s path to the White House
Kerlikowske earned his associate in arts degree from St. Petersburg Junior College while working for the St. Petersburg Police Department as a street cop. He eventually became head of SPPD’s criminal investigation division while earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice from the University of South Florida.
He later graduated from the National Executive Institute at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy in Quantico, Va., and went on to serve as police chief of four cities, and as a member of the United States Justice Department.
In his current role as commissioner, Kerlikowski runs the largest federal law enforcement agency with more than 60,000 employees and a budget of $12.4 billion. Before accepting the commissioner position in March 2014, he had served as Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy since 2009.
Public Policy Leadership Speaker Series
The Public Policy Leadership Speaker Series luncheons, organized by SPC Professor Jeff Kronschnabl, gives students the opportunity to engage with highly acclaimed professionals from local, state and federal government in an intimate setting. Previous speakers have included:
- Kurt S. Browning, former Florida Secretary of State (March 21, 2012)
Discussed the value of a higher education and the duties of the Secretary of State.
- Major General Karl M. Horst, Chief of Staff-U.S. Central Command ( 27, 2012)
Discussed his experiences in leadership from his 39 year military career and also discuss his leadership and how it pertains to the USCENTCOM area of Responsibility.
- Charlie Crist, former Florida Governor (March 19, 2013)
Discussed policy leadership while serving Florida as an elected official for over 15 years.
- Judge Nelly Khouzam and Judge Morris Silberman, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal (Oct. 16, 2013)
This husband and wife duo discussed “A Nation of Laws: What is the role and responsibility of appellate courts as relates to the rule of Law?”
- Bob Lasala, County Administrator for Pinellas County, and Bill Horne, City Manager of Clearwater (April 2, 2014)
Discussed collaborative leadership within local governments.
- Jack Latvala, Florida State Senator, and Ed Hooper, Florida State Representative (Oct. 29, 2014)
Discussed collaborative leadership within the Florida Legislature.
- James Olliver, Seminole Campus Provost, and Frank Edmunds, Seminole City Manager (March 25, 2015)
Discussed their distinguished public service careers and collaboration between the SPC Seminole campus and the City of Seminole.