Mr. FixIt

Minneapolis Police Chief Bob Olson came to town with a reputation for pleasing pols and infuriating cops. And he's surpassed himself on both counts.

The chief stands very straight facing the politicians, a phalanx of cops at his back. They glower at him from the wooden benches of the Minneapolis City Council chambers, three rows deep of black leather jackets. They're members of the Emergency Response Unit, the department's SWAT team, here to tell the politicians that they're resigning their high-risk assignments. The chief, they say, has humiliated and ignored them, putting their lives at risk for political gain.

Robert Olson's gaze is hard. He's been trying to deal with the complaints, he tells the politicians; he's always willing to listen to his employees. But he won't be bullied: It's a matter of "who's running the department, me or they." The officers stare after him when he leaves. He doesn't stare back. There is sarcasm in their eyes, disappointment, bitterness--and, behind it all, the unmistakable gleam of hatred.

Two years after being appointed to fix Minnesota's most notorious police force, Olson is presiding over a department in the throes of a mutiny. Crises under his watch have included the near-breakdown of the homicide unit; the continuing walkout of the ERU; and the threat of a lawsuit from minority officers. Not to mention the growing bitterness on the streets, where new policing initiatives have disproportionately targeted the young, poor, and black.

In another city, Olson might be a very controversial man by now. He became one in the three places where he worked before coming here. But members of the search committee that hired him say they were encouraged to focus on his stellar credentials, not poke around his history. Ever since then Olson has been sailing along, powered by a winning public persona, a sympathetic political establishment, and a city's desperate need for reassurance. It's only recently that the Teflon has begun to crack. And the funny thing is that right now, no one seems to know what lies beneath.

Perhaps the best way to get a bead on Bob Olson is to take a look around his office. On the door, there's his uniform, rarely worn--he prefers a suit--but accessorized with a pin that spells "ATTITUDE." A rock on his desk bears the same message, and so does his coffee mug. The mementos were given to him by a former boss, but their prominent display indicates more than sentimental attachment. Sure enough, there's a mantra in the making. Olson has taken to handing out ATTITUDE pins at department promotion ceremonies, and they're among the few items cops are allowed to wear on their uniforms.

"Everything is predicated on attitude," he explains. "If you can change attitudes, you can change the world. And you have to always focus on that. It's not what you did, but how you did it."

Olson has a way of doing this--offering up a cliché with the demeanor of someone disclosing a profoundly original thought. His conversation is peppered with buzzwords ("empowerment"; "leadership"); they're delivered earnestly, often trailing lengthy explanations. Earnest yet folksy, competent but not intimidating, he comes off a little like a small-town preacher, especially when he cocks his head and looks up at his interlocutor as if to encourage confession. But the longer you watch, the more he comes to resemble a corporate middle manager on the way up--not one of those young, hard-nosed MBAs, but the friendly boss who will ask about your kids one day, and hand you a pink slip with a smile and the phone number of the relocation office the next.

As it turns out, the perception isn't that far off. Olson is one of a new breed of top cops schooled not on the streets, but in management seminars and academic discussions. Even as a rookie patrolling Omaha neighborhoods on a three-wheel Harley, he acknowledges, he knew that "someday, I wanted to be a chief."

Olson began his career as a whiz kid. Born in St. Paul and raised in Fargo and Omaha, he was one of that city's first college-trained cadets. At a time when policing was just beginning its shift from a blue-collar job to a professional career, he rose through the ranks faster than any officer in the department's history. By age 36, he was Omaha's youngest deputy chief ever, well on his way to taking the last step.

But then he got tripped up. Omaha's mayor, a colorful machine politician, didn't like it when his brother-in-law was arrested for drunken driving. He liked it even less when officers came forward to say the arrest had come after a surveillance program. Olson said he knew nothing about it; the mayor fired him anyway. Olson appealed the case and lost all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Olson has been asked about the incident many times, and he has his answer down pat. He was the victim, he says, of an alcoholic mayor with delusions of grandeur. He would never have appealed had he known how politicized the process was. And, all said and done, "I should be thankful, because it forced me to go out into the market and I've had a very rewarding career since then."

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