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.

Olson says he was happy in Yonkers, and everywhere else he's worked. The controversy, he says, was just par for the course. "When you're brought in to change an organization's culture and the way things are always done, that will result in disagreements. In New York, the first couple of years were pretty rough, but as we got toward the end, we got in synch. And that's hopefully what I'd like to see happen here."

Ask Olson what he's most proud of having done since he's been here, and he'll list a familiar series of management changes. He's decentralized the downtown police headquarters, scattering investigators around the precincts. He's replaced sworn officers with civilians in some jobs, and reduced the number of supervisors. He's cracked down on misconduct, speeding up internal investigations and developing a discipline matrix that has, he notes, been sent to "most of the major police departments around the country. San Francisco, Kansas City, a lot of others are very interested."

Olson has also found ways to increase the department's budget with help from federal grants and the mayor (who, one associate notes admiringly, "closed down the health department and put that money into police"). Last year he wrangled the City Council into budgeting for 120 new squad cars and individual radios for each police officer. And he's been more visible than any other police chief (with the exception, of course, of the unforgettable Tony Bouza), encouraging cops to cooperate with reporters and making himself readily accessible. "We need to use the media," he says, "to make sure that our message gets out."

Amid all that action, it's no wonder the grumbling from the rank and file is rarely taken seriously. Most outsiders suspect that when the cops are complaining, Olson must be doing something right. And his supporters in the department say the troops are just leery of change. "Police don't have control over a lot of things in their jobs," notes Inspector Christine Morris, who heads the north side's Fourth Precinct. "They're out there in a fully-marked squad car, in uniform, and things come at them, often life-and-death things. So they dig in their heels on the little stuff."

But inertia alone doesn't explain the depth of resistance to Olson. Cops, while stubborn, are also hierarchy-minded; they work in a paramilitary organization, and they know how to take orders. But that kind of loyalty, many of Olson's critics say, must be earned.

"He's disconnected," says Sgt. Al Berryman, president of the union that represents Minneapolis cops. "I think he's equated vehicles and radios with giving a sign to the people who work for him that he's concerned about them. But I bet you that he couldn't name 50 people in the department. You get the feeling that he tries to keep his relationship on an impersonal, business level. And it shows."

Olson says he can see how officers would feel as if he's distant, considering that his predecessor was a 27-year department veteran who did know most everyone by name. And, he adds, troops are always suspicious of an outside chief: "It takes a while to get over that. But I would hope that anybody who feels that I don't care about them would do something about it. They ought to come in and talk it over. That's why I go out and spend a week in each of the precincts every year. It gives people an opportunity to vent some of that stuff. I hate to have people feel grumpy all the time. It's not good for them."

None of that seems to make much of an impression among the troops--on the contrary. Told of Olson's invitation to "talk things over," one veteran lets out a long, low gurgle. "The word in the department is that if you speak out against this guy he'll cook you," he finally says, demanding not to be identified. "There's always been some of that, but now it's more than ever before. I've worked under eight chiefs and I tell you, this guy is the most feared of all of them.

"My impression is that he suffers from what the psychologists would call the Little Big Man complex. One of those guys that got kicked around in the past, and now that they've got some authority they're going to use it. Look at the [chief's] uniform he's made for himself. He's got pants with gold stripes down the sides, no one else in the department has those. He has this overcoat with gold braids on it; he's taken the Minneapolis police badge and put gold stripes around it. He's got stars on his collar and this wreath that's basically a merchant marine wreath. He looks like the doorman at the Hilton. And it's all to say, 'I'm the chief, and I dare you to say I'm not.'"

Whether the psychological assessment is correct is hard to say--after all, one of Olson's hallmarks is that no one seems to have much of a clue about him as a person. What is clear from the record is that Olson has followed marching orders from the people who hired him. The judge's verdict from the Mike Sauro police-brutality case--that the city had exhibited "deliberate indifference" to police misconduct--hung heavy over politicians at the time; erasing its blemish, Olson says, was "right at the top of the list of things I was charged with doing."

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