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.

So far, however, Olson's disciplinary batting average isn't stellar. In his two years as chief he's handed out 14 firings, demotions, and long-term suspensions. Ten of the actions were overturned on appeal. Olson and his supporters say that's because civil-service rules and the union contract infringe on what should be managerial decisions. But his critics counter that that's too easy.

"It's not that some of the people he came down on didn't deserve it," notes another department veteran. "But they didn't do their homework on a lot of the cases. And a lot of what they're doing is just petty. People get in trouble now for not wearing a hat, for showing up five minutes late. They're micromanaging the department to death."

"These are people out here who are adults," adds Sgt. Gerald Moore, who works in the homicide division. "You've given them a badge and a gun, you've told them to go out and do police work. But yet they go in and tell you that your shelves are too high, and your radio can't play anything but the weather channel. People down here are dealing with some of the most gruesome crimes. You need to cut them some slack, not tell them that they can't hang plants from the ceiling, and they can't have a casual day on Fridays and not wear a tie. These are things that start to eat at people."

Olson says he can't remember getting involved in dress and furniture codes, but that he has put supervisors on notice that disciplinary infractions are not to be tolerated: "So [their superior] made them dress up a little bit? Made them wear a tie? I don't see what's wrong with that."

Critics say it's that kind of response that has been causing some of the department's best-respected cops to bail out. The homicide unit has been hit especially hard by retirements, resulting in a full-fledged crisis last summer. Caseloads went through the roof for the detectives who remained. Prosecutors were sending files back because they didn't contain enough information to press charges. And more and more cases were being "redlined," not investigated at all.

All of which makes even cops who support Olson's approach wonder about the future. "I actually think he's got some great ideas," ventures Alisa Clemons, an investigator in the juvenile unit. "But there is something going on--I don't know if it's because of him, but it's more magnified now. The feeling that people love their job, that it's a career for them, is being lost. A lot of the older cops, and now some of the younger cops too, are coming in every day and putting on their uniform and doing the work, because they got to feed their family. But it's just a job for them now. And the people who suffer, I think, is the community."

If a police chief stood or fell on the loyalty of his officers, Olson would have fallen by now. The reason he hasn't is that he's been able to keep the support of politicians, media, and community groups, to whom he has held out a major promise: That he will change not just the way the cops operate, but the way the city feels.

The concept of community-oriented policing (C.O.P.) has gotten too much ink around here lately to need much explaining. In a nutshell, it involves a shift from the police as (in Olson's phrase) "Jack Webb types" chasing the bad guys, to a prevention-based approach that has cops walking beats, shaking hands, and generally weaving themselves into the "fabric of the neighborhood." Whether it actually works that way no one has been able to prove, but that hasn't stopped supporters. Minneapolis officials have been particularly gung-ho, and Olson's history of advocating C.O.P. was among the top reasons for his selection.

Olson says he's been overwhelmed by the degree to which the city got with the program. Politicians supported him when he sent investigators, including homicide cops, to walk beats in the summer; when he scattered vice and auto-theft detectives into the precincts; and when he offered to pay cops for coaching youth sports in his favorite project, the Police Athletic League. Neighborhoods put up their own money to build police substations, and to buy themselves an extra beat cop or two. "I really haven't seen any other places that operate that way," he says. "It's just neat stuff."

Inside the department, not everyone is so thrilled. "He's had us planting flowers outside the precinct," one officer scoffs. Jerry Larson, vice president of the Police Federation, calls it all "Kumbaya--holding everybody's hands instead of getting out there and kicking ass."

Actually, community policing does have quite a kick-ass component--though it's not talked about nearly as much as the Kumbaya part. Perhaps the biggest initiative of Olson's tenure was Operation Safe Streets, which directed cops to stop and search people for minor offenses--things like having something hanging from their rearview mirror--in hopes of finding drugs or guns. Olson announced it three months after taking office, in a joint press conference with Sayles Belton. "There are some thoughts that we are going to be Gestapo-like," he anticipated, "but certainly we're not."

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