U.S. border chief discusses current events while in Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – R. Gil Kerlikowske is a career lawman with experience at federal and local levels. He’s a former Police Chief in Seattle and Police Commissioner in Buffalo.

But these days Kerlikowske is the new Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He was nominated by President Obama and sworn in on March 7, 2014.

News 4 had a chance to sit down with him during his visit to Buffalo.

The recent violence and turmoil in Ferguson, MO was among the topics Kerlikowske was asked about.

“My concern, and frankly my heart, goes out to those people both in Ferguson, but also to the people in the leadership positions in that city,” he said.

Ferguson has been rocked by violence in recent days. The shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer had led to several nights of turmoil, which had been met by tear gas and rubber bullets.

The appearance of police equipped with riot gear has raised eyebrows in the community.

News 4 asked Kerlikowske about the use of hardened gear by police in situations similar to what’s happening in Ferguson.

“Any police chief has a very difficult balancing act. You want to make sure that your officers are safe, and they have the equipment needed to make sure they’re safe.” He added, “You want to protect the public but you also have to have relationships and open communication with people that are very upset.”

Kerlikowske has a full plate running Customs and Border Protection, a 60,000-employee agency with a budget of $12.4 billion.

He’s been dealing with the influx of immigrant children pouring into the United States along the southwest border. Although he says the numbers for July are down.

“We’re very pleased with that. Some of that of course could be seasonal. It’s very tough. Very high heat right now.”

He says the countries that they’re coming from are plagued with economic and violence issues.

“So it’s in our interest to help those countries, to make sure that they have a better economy.” He added, “We have to work closely with Mexico because everybody that’s coming in is transiting from Mexico.”

He describes the situation along the Rio Grande Valley as a much different situation than normal for Border Patrol agents.

“These are not people that we’re chasing. These are people that are walking across in places where the Rio Grande is ankle deep and giving themselves up,” Kerlikowske added.

He says often times they’re given instructions by human smugglers to turn themselves in to the people in green.

“I couldn’t have been more impressed with the work that the Border Patrol agents were doing, from cooking food to bringing in clothes from their own children to help these families. Things are better now but we have to be prepared.”

And there’s the issue of transparency.

Kerlikowske says he’s committed to opening up the agency’s flow of information to the public, which he says hasn’t been very good at answering tough questions.

“I intend to change that, and I’m working pretty hard to give Border Patrol chiefs that authority to speak and to give information. When an incident happens people want to know the circumstances around it,” he said.

Commissioner Kerlikowske, who most recently served as Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says he’s optimistic that the necessary changes are going to occur.

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