Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has accepted a job in the Obama administration, possibly overseeing the nation's drug policies, according to sources familiar with the chief's plans.

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Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has accepted a job in the Obama administration, most likely overseeing the nation’s drug policies, according to sources familiar with the chief’s plans.

Kerlikowske, who has led the department for more than eight years, has told the department’s top commanders he expects to leave to take a top federal position, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren’t officially authorized to disclose the information.

One source said the Seattle office of the FBI had received a “special presidential inquiry” ordering a comprehensive background check on Kerlikowske in anticipation of his taking a position in the administration.

Kerlikowske, 59, whose law-enforcement career spans 36 years, declined to comment Tuesday.

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Seattle FBI spokeswoman Robbie Burroughs said the agency doesn’t discuss background checks.

Sources say Kerlikowske is expected to be named head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a Cabinet-level position otherwise known as the drug czar. The office, established in 1988, directs drug-control policy in the U.S. It’s subject to Senate confirmation.

Edward Jurith, the current acting drug czar, declined to talk about Kerlikowske when called at home in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday evening.

“Nope. No comment. I can’t talk about it,” he said.

The White House media affairs office declined comment Wednesday.

Kerlikowske had also expressed an interest in the top job at the federal Drug Enforcement Administration but apparently has not been tapped for that post, one source said.

Kerlikowske has told his command staff that he likely will leave by this summer and possibly much earlier, sources said.

Close to AG Holder

Kerlikowske, who was appointed Seattle chief in 2000 by then-Mayor Paul Schell, had worked the previous two years as deputy director of the Justice Department’s community-oriented policing division during the Clinton administration.

Sources said Kerlikowske established ties in Washington, D.C., and has a strong relationship with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who served as deputy attorney general during the Clinton years.

Kerlikowske won credit for stabilizing the police department after the stormy departure of Norm Stamper as chief in the wake of the 1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle, as well as the department’s initial failure to unearth a detective’s alleged theft of money at a crime scene. A genial Kerlikowske reached out to citizens. In addition, crime rates dipped during his time as chief, reaching historic lows in recent years.

But his tenure has been rocky at times, marked by controversy over allegations that he was too soft when it came to disciplining officers in misconduct cases.

New rules recommended by a mayoral panel were put into place last year to make the chief more accountable, including a requirement that he explain his reasons for reversing disciplinary recommendations made by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA).

Chief’s background

Kerlikowske began his career as a street cop in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1972 and went on to serve as chief in two Florida cities, Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie.

He became the first department outsider to lead the Buffalo, N.Y., department in the 1990s, and left there for the deputy-director position in the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, a post he was appointed to by then-President Clinton, according to his biography on the Seattle Police Department’s Web site.

Kerlikowske lists one of his accomplishments as the development of less-than-lethal force options for officers, equipping dozens of officers with Tasers. He also oversaw the installation of cameras in the department’s patrol cars.

Currently, he serves as president of the Major Cities Chief’s Association, which consists of police leaders from the country’s 56 largest metropolitan areas.

He has been an advocate of gun control and fought to pass the assault-weapons ban and has championed closing the background-check loophole at gun shows.

Alex Fryer, spokesman for Mayor Greg Nickels, said the mayor would have no comment on whether Kerlikowske is leaving. “We’re just not saying anything about it,” he said.

How he’d be replaced

If Kerlikowske departs, an interim chief is likely to be appointed, a City Hall source said. Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, the department’s second-ranking official, and Assistant Chief Nick Metz would be possible candidates, along with retired assistant chief Herb Johnson, who was highly praised for his performance as acting chief after Stamper’s departure.

Kerlikowske is the region’s second prominent official apparently headed to the Obama administration. Last week, King County Executive Ron Sims announced that Obama was nominating him to be deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Sims, who had been campaigning for a fourth term as county executive, awaits Senate confirmation for the HUD job.

Kerlikowske arrived in Seattle with a reputation as a progressive and intellectual law-enforcement official.

But his standing with the public and his own officers suffered a major blow in 2001 over handling of the Mardi Gras riot that led to the death of 20-year-old Kristopher Kime and 70 injuries.

Nickels, the incoming mayor that year, considered removing Kerlikowske but kept him after a private meeting between the two.

The mayor ultimately became one of the chief’s staunchest supporters, backing Kerlikowske’s handling of discipline in the department.

Nickels also supported Kerlikowske when the city’s police union voted no-confidence in him in 2002 after the chief publicly reprimanded an officer for being rude to a group of young jaywalkers. Rank-and-file officers were also upset that commanders weren’t disciplined for not quickly intervening to quell the Mardi Gras riot.

But Nickels bent to public pressure in 2007, when the chief came under criticism for his handling of officer discipline after a controversial downtown drug stop and the violent arrest of a man outside a nightclub. Nickels appointed the panel that recommended stricter standards for police oversight and accepted its proposals.

“Oh God bless us”

Kerlikowske’s possible role in shaping drug policy for the Obama administration was applauded Tuesday by local medical-marijuana advocates.

In 2003, Kerlikowske opposed a city ballot measure, approved by voters, to make marijuana possession the lowest law-enforcement priority, saying it would create confusion. But in doing so, he noted that arresting people for possessing marijuana for personal use was already not a priority.

“Oh God bless us,” said Joanna McKee, co-founder and director of Green Cross Patient Co-Op, a medical-marijuana patient-advocacy group. “What a blessing — the karma gods are smiling on the whole country, man.”

McKee said Kerlikowske knows the difference between cracking down on the illegal abuse of drugs and allowing the responsible use of marijuana.

Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle attorney and advocate for medical-marijuana patients, said his first preference would be for a physician to oversee national drug policy.

But Kerlikowske would be a vast improvement over past drug czars, who have used the office to carry out the so-called “war on drugs,” Hiatt said.

Kerlikowske is a “very reasonable guy” who would likely bring more liberal policies to the job, Hiatt said.

Seattle Times staff reporters Jennifer Sullivan, Christine Clarridge and Ian Ith contributed to this report.

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