Sergeant Ed Olsen makes an unlikely social worker. For 13 of the nearly 22 years he’s served as a Santa Barbara cop, Olsen has been on the SWAT team. When he took over supervision of the department’s major crimes detail six years ago, Santa Barbara hadn’t had a homicide in three years. But things changed fast. During the four years Olsen spent supervising murder investigations, Santa Barbara experienced 17 homicides. With only one exception, Olsen said, all the killers were caught, convicted, and put behind bars. “That’s not me,” Olsen insisted. “It’s the crew.”
Two years ago, Olsen was reassigned to manage the department’s fledgling Restorative Policing program. As such, it’s been Olsen’s charge to keep Santa Barbara’s down-and-out from occupying the limited and expensive real estate in the County Jail and in the area emergency rooms. He and his team do this by connecting people — often drunk, frequently mentally ill, and almost always service resistant — with the help that might get them off the streets. Despite chronic budget woes, the City Council voted to expand the program last year, committing an extra $350,000 to get the job done.
One year later, Olsen remains surprisingly upbeat and optimistic given the seemingly futile nature of his mission. He has facts and figures at the ready attesting to the program’s impact. And he has unlikely success stories, too, like the case of Randy Johnson, the street person city police had cited more than 1,600 times who was recently reunited with family in Shasta County. “I’ve received a new and different level of job satisfaction in my current job I didn’t know existed,” Olsen said.
The $350,000 bought extra bodies to augment what had been a skeletal crew. Together, they issued 1,175 citations from last November to this May and made 64 felony arrests and 124 misdemeanor arrests. Then there are the two sworn officers — Keld Hove and Craig Burleigh — whose sole function is to connect transients with social services or perhaps the Restorative Court. Between November and May, these two placed 94 people in some treatment program, reunited 15 people with their families, and had 3,237 follow-up contacts with various individuals. Their job often involves driving street people to programs located far out of town. “We don’t send anyone anywhere unless we know there’s someone on the other end,” Olsen said. And they do the driving themselves. “We make sure they get there sober,” Olsen explained.
“We’re not in control of when someone is ready to change,” Olsen said. “The best we can do is be omnipresent.”
What’s new is the presence of three outreach specialists, half-time city workers who are paid considerably less than the $100/hour it costs to put a veteran officer on the street. In the last seven months, these three — dressed in blue polo shirts — made 1,020 personal contacts and attended 649 meetings. “We’re not in control of when someone is ready to change,” Olsen said. “The best we can do is be omnipresent.” To help with that, the department has also added six new community liaison officers — dressed in yellow shirts — whose job it is to maintain a presence in neighborhoods where nuisance crime is prevalent. They’re the eyes and ears of patrol officers; they serve a deterrent function just by being there; they’re in touch with business owners and shopkeepers. In the past eight months, these officers — also part-timers — made 9,251 contacts with local business owners and attended 168 meetings.
Councilmember Bendy White, who served on a special homeless task force, said the department’s restorative approach has definitely helped, but he expressed frustration with state and federal cuts that will put more people on the city’s streets. “These are wonderful changes being made to improve the seaworthiness of what seems to be a sinking ship,” he said. Sebastian Aldana, active with the Milpas Community Association (MCA), said the focus on restorative policing is money well spent and has “put a dent in the problem.” But, he added, the problem keeps growing. “For every two or three we help off the streets, another four or five come,” he said.
On Milpas Street, much of the focus has been on the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter, whose executive director Mike Foley contends the issues surrounding street people and transient crime have reduced since the restorative push got underway. As for Olsen, Foley had nothing but praise. “He’s awesome,” Foley said and described how the cops and Casa conspired to get a 22-year-old shoplifter who’d been to the ER 100 times in the past six months for diabetes-related alcohol poisoning into detox treatment. But in the meantime, the MCA has filed an official complaint with City Hall alleging Casa has violated the terms of its conditional-use permit.
As for Olsen, he doesn’t bank on the miracle of personal transformation. With the jail 86-percent full with people awaiting trial, he said, there’s simply not room to put minor, albeit aggravating, offenders inside. By keeping street drunks from clogging the system, Olsen reckons he can help keep the seriously scary behind bars. Like the recovering addicts he works with, Olsen ekes out his successes one day at a time. Relapse and failure, he knows, are part of the process