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.

What Olson doesn't say is why his firing was upheld. There was, the Nebraska high court concluded, "substantial evidence in the record upon which [officials] could determine that Olson knew of the arrest plan and lied during the internal police investigation." That decision has been making the rounds among Olson detractors in the MPD; it's dragged out especially when the chief disciplines someone for not being truthful. At one point, Olson felt compelled to send out a memo reiterating that "I did nothing wrong and was a victim of politics and a very ruthless mayor."

It seems as if that mayor wasn't the only one who disliked Olson. When he took office in Minneapolis, the Police Federation received a "Thoughts of Deep and Sincere Sympathy" card signed by more than a dozen Omaha cops. "You have 10,000 lakes," one wrote. "Find one!"

Though the Omaha firing has been more publicized locally than anything else in Olson's past, it wasn't the only problem haunting his career. His next job took him to Corpus Christi, a South Texas city where local pols wanted an executive-style chief with academic credentials (Olson holds a master's degree in criminal justice) to turn around a department thus far run by its own.

Veterans of Olson's administration give him credit for "some good ideas," including decentralizing the downtown headquarters. But most of the chief's tenure, they say, was consumed by controversy. "His qualifications looked good on paper," says Isaac Valencia, president of the Corpus Christi Police Officers Association, "but it turned out that he wasn't seasoned on the streets. That's what happens when people get promoted too fast. He didn't grasp how the decisions he was making would impact the people at the bottom, and he didn't seem to care."

What's more, Valencia and others say, the chief never seemed to connect with the community, especially its Hispanic majority. "He was involved with management and that was the way he worked; he had his own world in there," says Henry Gorham of Corpus Christi's League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "We expected him to be outgoing and meet the people and build relationships with the different cultures we have here. But we never experienced that." One of LULAC's key complaints--foreshadowing developments in Minneapolis--was that minority cops weren't getting "a fair shake" from the administration; several of them, Gorham says, ended up asking LULAC to mediate for them.

Olson defends his record on diversity, noting that a captain he promoted is now Corpus Christi's first Hispanic chief. But he acknowledges his tenure was rough. "A lot of it was just personality stuff," he says. "There was a whole lot of politics going on there."

Eventually, the politics boiled over. Two years into Olson's term, the city manager who hired him was gone along with most of his allies. The police union decided to start "a full-scale campaign to take our concerns to the public." To kick it off they were going to march on City Hall. The day of the planned protest, Olson resigned.

"I've seen a lot of these guys come and go," says Ron DeLord, who heads Texas's statewide police association. "Personally, I like a lot of them. Olson's a nice fellow. But these are basically TV personalities. They drift around the country and they take these top jobs in places where the leadership for some reason or another wants an outside chief. They talk a good game, they look good, they have the academic background, they make a lot of superficial changes. But they never deal with issues for the long term because they don't intend to stay for the long term. They're politicians, and they wear thin with the politicians."

Within months of leaving Corpus Christi, Olson took his "cutback management skills" to work as commissioner of police in Yonkers, New York. Charged with fixing a corrupt, arrogant department, he clamped down on overtime; broke up special units to put more cops on the streets; and did a lot of demoting and firing. He also instituted a police-community relations task force and supported civilian review of police misconduct. The local NAACP gave him its Freedom Fighter award in 1994.

Again, it didn't all go over well with the rank and file. The police union claimed that Olson's cutbacks were causing shortages in investigative units and training. A woman sued--and won $335,000--claiming Olson had shut her out of a recruit class because she was over 40. And in 1992, Olson was almost blown to bits when someone rigged a bomb to his car. Newspaper accounts speculated about a mob hit. But the police investigation, which never produced a suspect, focused on disgruntled former officers.

Charles Cola, president of the Yonkers Police Benevolent Association, says he personally found Olson easy to deal with. "When we had disagreements, we could always sit down and work them out." But he also notes that in 1994, as Olson's contract neared its end, his name showed up in chief searches in New Orleans, Toledo, and Tucson. By the time Olson left for Minneapolis, the Yonkers mayor who'd appointed him was headed for an uncertain election.

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