Less than nine months after leaving the University of Nevada Las Vegas Police Department to become UC Santa Barbara’s chief of police, Dustin Olson has demonstrated a cautious approach to changing the status quo. While still learning the often arcane ways of UCSB, he has strengthened measures against sexual assault, plans a clamp down on bicycle theft (which he calls a “quality of life” issue) this fall, and has tried to heighten his new department’s sense of being on a team.
At 40, Olson is one of UCSB’s youngest police chiefs. The Las Vegas native leads a department that consists of 26 officers, seven sergeants, and two captains. Seven dispatchers, three paramedics, seven administrative staff, and 80 part-time community service officers, most of whom are students, assist them. His partner, psychologist Kirsten Gabriel, works for the campus’s Counseling Services.
A former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant before joining the UNLV Police Department, Olson values esprit d’corps. He sought to reinforce it at UCSB by initiating an annual honors banquet. This school term ended with a new award, the John L. MacPherson Police Officer of the Year, being presented to officer Matt Bly by MacPherson’s widow, Cindy.
Talking with the Goleta Grapevine, Olson affirmed his commitment to listening to and seeking input from various segments of the campus—students, staff, and faculty—in dealing with common problems, a philosophy embodied in the term “community policing.” Student behavior in county-governed Isla Vista has expanded his concerns beyond campus boundaries—he’d like to help explore safe alternatives to jail or the local emergency rooms for drunken revelers—but the single father of two college-aged children acknowledged his department’s minor part in the law enforcement coalition known as the I.V. Foot Patrol.
UCSB’s police department is still a part of the Foot Patrol, isn’t it?
Yes, but I don’t have a large role in terms of management. I don’t necessarily drive the bus over there; I do drive the bus here.
But students’ alcohol abuse in I.V. concerned you enough to support discussion of a so-called “sobering center” during the recent campaign for District Attorney.
I’ve been out to Isla Vista [with paramedics] on Saturday nights and I see what is happening, and I’ve gone to emergency rooms and dropped off student after student. I know some of them end up in the county detention facility. So I ask, “Are these appropriate places for students who are overly intoxicated?” I think it [deserves] further discussion and I would like to be part of that discussion, if the opportunity arises. There should be a safe environment, a place where students could be monitored and cared for, that would be an alternative to a criminal procedure. By doing the same thing [we’ve always done], we know what to expect: They’re going to jail or they’re going to the emergency room.
At UNLV you secured a BA in criminal justice and an MS in emergency management, even as you rose through the department to become assistant chief. How does your life reflect the twin influences of the university and law enforcement?
I been fortunate by having higher education parallel almost my entire professional career. Essentially I’ve been a student almost my whole adult life, and that’s the truth. I’m really empathetic to the plight of students. I know that the majority of them want to get it right and do the right thing; they sometimes don’t make the best choices.
Speaking of poor choices, please sketch your ideas for reducing the problem of stolen bicycles at UCSB, some of which will be implemented this fall, and why are you are talking with the DA’s office about it?
Bicycles are the primary mode of transportation here for most students but also some staff and faculty. We’re always out there enforcing bicycle rules and regulations; that will definitely continue in the fall. But I think that some of the issue is that [bike theft] is so commonplace it is somehow seen as acceptable practice. Some students’ attitudes I’ve heard boiled down to: My bike was taken so therefore I can take somebody else’s bike. But if you impede someone from being effective in their day-to-day functioning it becomes a big issue. I told the District Attorney’s Office this is a huge quality of life issue, and while we don’t think it’s the most serious crime per se, we feel that prosecuting some cases will [send a message]. We’ve also partnered with the Associated Students Bike Shop and they helped [design a program that] will help enforcement and hopefully change the culture.
The so-called “bait bike program”?
Yes, a portable GPS device [will track certain bikes]. We have a crime analysis tool to map crime on a monthly basis. It looks at spatial relationships, where the crime happens, any modus operandi, bike information, etc. We want everybody to use bicycles appropriately, but we need to change this part of the culture to make the campus a better place to live, work, and learn.
Describe the sexual violence prevention efforts, including the annual “Lighting Walk” initiated this winter, which you’re working on at UCSB.
[Rape Prevention Education Director] Melanie Matson [of the Women’s Center] attended a train-the-trainer course in San Diego on rape aggression defense so that the course can be taught on campus this fall. We’re real excited about that. Melanie and I were both asked to present materials [at a conference] about what we’re doing for sexual assault prevention at UCSB. The Lighting Walk found a lot of lights that needed to be replaced, but we also looked at other environmental factors that might lend themselves to real or perceived security issues.
You have spent slightly less than 10 years with the Marines and slightly more at UNLVPD. What do you bring to UCSB from that blend of experience?
The Marine Corps is all about leadership, from the minute you make it into the organization to the day you leave. I feel I got some sound leadership principles and practice there and at UNLV. The UNLV chief was an exceptional police officer who has served for nearly 40 years. He mentored me and really showed me what it means to be a [university] police leader. We understood clearly who were our customers—the students, staff and faculty—and that policing on a campus is different—not less than, but different—from municipal policing. There are definite challenges. Sometimes the professional culture is not very helpful to [individual officers].
What would you like to see change in law enforcement culture?
If bad things happen, how do we deal with them [as individuals]? Don’t get me wrong, I think we’ve come a long way and we’re getting better, but there is room for improvement. And it starts at the top, with the leadership driving the bus and saying, “We’re all going to the crisis debriefing. Everybody can go in and talk to the counselor. If you have nothing to say, that’s up to you. But everybody needs to go through the exercise.” I will avail that service to my employees because I care about them and they’re my responsibility.