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Jefferson police chief has tie to U.S. drug czar

POSTED: April 26, 2009 11:00 p.m.
BRANDEE A. THOMAS/The Times

Jefferson Police Chief Joe Wirthman worked under Gil Kerlikowske, who was recently appointed by President Barack Obama as the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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JEFFERSON — Washington, D.C., may be nearly 600 miles away from Jefferson, but a top drug official there has a direction connection to the local chief of police.

President Barack Obama recently selected Gil Kerlikowske serve as the nation’s “drug czar,” the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Jefferson Police Chief Joe Wirthman trained under Kerlikowske in the early 1990s.

“I worked as a road sergeant from 1990 to 1992 when (Kerlikowske) was the police chief in Fort Pierce (Fla.),” Wirthman said.

“He was really ahead of his time even back then. He really thought outside of the box. Back then, police officers would hit the streets, fight crime and that’s it, but (Kerlikowske) had a different approach. Instead of just fighting crime, he had us focus on the root causes of crime, so that we wouldn’t have to keep fighting the same problem over and over again.”

Prior to being appointed to the national drug control office, Kerlikowske was the police chief in Seattle, Washington. Even in that position, Wirthman says he could still count on Kerlikowske for advice.

“Gil Kerlikowske has the expertise, the experience, and the sound judgment to lead our national efforts against drug trafficking and use, and he will make an excellent addition to my administration,” Obama has said. “With escalating violence along our southwest border and far too many suffering from the disease of addiction here at home, never has it been more important to have a national drug control strategy guided by sound principles of public safety and health.”

Although he says he learned many things under Kerlikowske’s guidance, Wirthman says there are several key strategies that he uses in his role as chief in Jefferson.

“He always stressed the importance of going out and getting to know the community. Every community is unique, so you can’t apply the same techniques and strategies across the board,” Wirthman said.

“I use that today and encourage my officers to get to know their community and to let the community members tell them what they see as the problems. We may think it’s one thing, but the people who actually live there may think it’s something else.”

Listening to the concerns of the community also helps the department get to the underlying causes that may cause more overt problems, Wirthman says. It also allows the department to put their money and resources where they are most needed.

Wirthman says Kerlikowske encouraged him to get a master’s degree, at a time when it was uncommon for a police officer to even have a bachelor’s degree.

“One day, he pulled me aside and told me that I could really do a lot more with my life than what I was currently doing. He told me that I needed to go back to school and get a graduate degree,” Wirthman said.

“At that time I was in my 30s. He really got me to thinking about where I wanted to be when I was in my 50s. So I listened and I got my master’s degree. After that I started getting promoted pretty quickly.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today as a chief of police if he hadn’t seen something in me that I didn’t see in myself at that time.”



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