Sgt. Ed Olsen Puts Restorative Policing on the Map

SBPD Veteran Talks Homeless Issues, Nuisance Crimes, and an Enabling Public

Sgt. Ed Olsen was instrumental in getting the SBPD's restorative policing program off the ground
Paul Wellman

Three and a half years ago, Sergeant Ed Olsen was ordered to turn the vague idea of restorative policing into an actual operation. With a résumé that boasts 23 years of law enforcement work and positions on the SWAT team, detective bureau, and major crimes unit, Olsen’s transition to the new approach — which connects homeless people with social services and works to prevent the nuisance-type crimes often associated with transient groups — has rendered real change, and the results speak for themselves.

During the first two years of the restorative policing program, 171 people participated in a diversionary system for repeat offenders who commit minor, nonviolent crimes. (The group had previously been responsible for 6,000 calls for police, fire, and medical services.) Fifty-two of them graduated, meaning they were not arrested or cited for six months; 119 were placed in social service programs that treat alcohol, drug, or mental health issues; 25 secured permanent housing.

City Hall was so impressed with the program’s early success that it augmented the effort with Redevelopment Agency funds in 2011. The money paid for sworn officers Keld Hove and Craig Burleigh, as well as three restorative outreach specialists and six community liaison members, who work to curb homeless-related problems along the downtown and Milpas corridors. Just last week, a Milpas business owner worked with Olsen to help a homeless man — who had been loitering and disrupting his business for years — acquire a valid identification so he could seek help through official channels. “How cool is that?” Olsen asked.

Now, Olsen is moving upstairs to take a position in the police department’s Internal Affairs division. He will be replaced by Sgt. Warren Holtke, a 17-year department vet who has held positions in tactical patrol force, the detective bureau, and the bomb disposal unit. Olsen sat down with The Santa Barbara Independent to reflect on success stories, pet peeves, young urban travelers, an enabling public, and why restorative policing is a creative new way to solve long-standing problems.

How did get you involved with restorative policing? Restorative policing was way out of my wheelhouse. I was the cop’s cop. I was on the SWAT team for 13 years. I was arresting murderers and felons. I was told they wanted to bring me over for my creativity and my work ethic and wanted to see how far I could take the chief’s philosophy and make it something bigger than it was.

Did you get teased at all when you first made the transition? No, not at all. This is a unique position because you’re looking at the guy who’s in charge of both the carrot and the stick. With Tactical Patrol Force, we have a very long history in the agency of having the highest number of arrests. We’re a proactive unit. We don’t answer all of the calls per se, but if we’re in the general area, we proactively go out and try to resolve situations before they begin. We typically deal with nuisance behavior that’s attributed to much of the homeless population.

I think people didn’t recognize the mission I was put on, which was to build restorative policing into something bigger than it was. So there was no teasing. [An officer in the room chimed in at this point: “Come on, Ed.”] Well, they tease me for plenty of reasons. My nickname around here is Gump because, well, we won’t even get into that.

How did the department in general react to the program? There were so many police officers that didn’t think we were going down the right path. But those same police officers now come to us and say, “I haven’t seen this person in two years.” This is a person they would arrest on a nightly basis. When they were in the back of the police car, they would vomit on themselves. Then the officer would have to drop them off at Cottage Hospital or County Jail, and the officer had to come back and hose off the back of the car and dry it off. Just really, really labor intensive issues. Now those officers come to us and say, “Thank you for doing this.”

Some said we shouldn’t be involved in social work. Our job is to go out there and hold people accountable for their actions that are defined in the Penal Code and the Municipal Code and the Vehicle Code. That’s our job.

But through creative means, there’s a way to reduce the calls for service. What we do looks like social work, but at some point, we’re handing our efforts off to social workers. That’s how it should be designed. Many of the nuisance-related crimes in California have been decriminalized, so we have fewer enforcement tools than we did 10 years ago. We have to work more creatively in how we’re going to increase quality of life and reduce calls for service.

How does restorative policing impact the younger homeless population? Even with all this great work, when you walk down State Street, you wouldn’t know we’re doing anything. That young urban traveler is not necessarily our client. Not yet. The young urban travelers, they’re on the streets for a reason. Whether it’s their own choice or they were traumatized, they still possess some level of choice. If they don’t want to live in the social norm, they just create a lot of negative attention and nuisance-related crimes. At some point, after living on the street, it’s going to take its toll. Whether it’s alcohol, drug addiction, or mental health, they’re going to end up not being able to make a choice for themselves. That’s when they become clients to the restorative policing aspect.

What can be done about that group? That young urban traveler group is in the pedestrian precincts because it’s lucrative for them to be there. Here’s the issue: You offer a toothbrush, food, socks, or services, and these people come to you when they need a toothbrush, food, socks, or services. What you’ve done is help them bridge a crisis that they are enduring at that moment. As long as they can get through that crisis, then they can maintain the lifestyle of living in the park, sleeping on benches, etc.

We don’t wait for people to come to us to ask for a quick fix. We go out and search for people who are in dire need. We wrap our arms around them and stick with them. We bring them to the program. We don’t wait for the program to get to them. That’s the paradigm that works for us, and that’s why we’ve been successful for getting those people off the streets. As the program has been going for three and a half years, we’re seeing our efficiency and productiveness increase. We hope it continues. We can more effectively deal with the people who are enforcement problems, but I think the community as a whole needs to recognize as long as it is lucrative for people, they will remain on the streets.

Should people give cash or food to transients? I remember when I was relatively new to the program, I saw a car pull over to a man who was sitting on a bench at 200 State Street. This was a gentleman that was a longtime alcoholic. He was literally melting into the ceramic tile bus bench. He just wanted to drink himself to death. He always had two fifths of vodka on him — one was hidden and one was in plain sight. And he would sip on the one in plain sight. Every time a police officer came by and cited him and poured out his vodka, he’d always have the second one ready to go.

There were four young Westmont College students in the car. They were double parked and not supposed to stop where they did. I see that one of the guys is running out with the ashtray with their pocket change. They’re going to give it to this guy because they think they are helping him. So I pull over, and I stop the car and say, “Here’s the deal. You guys are impeding traffic; I’m going to give you a break on that, but come with me.”

I introduced them to the gentleman. I said, “Paul, empty out your pockets.” He pulls wads of cash out of his pockets because he can’t spend that money quickly enough. I said, “I think you guys think you’re helping him, but what you’re doing is helping him to an early death. Paul gets $1,200 a month from Social Security Income. Your four bucks in pennies isn’t helping him. Give to a program that is designed to help people like this. Don’t give to any one person who is clearly showing a lifestyle of bad choices.”

There are also people who will go to Hamburger Habit and deliver a hamburger to somebody out in front with a sign that says, “Please food or money.” People often say they don’t want to give them money because they are just going to go buy alcohol. Well, they’ve been panhandling all day long, and you’ve just made their job easier to get whatever alcohol they’ll need or whatever they’re going to use that money for. You have provided them with a meal. Part of their earnings that day would have to go toward a meal. You’re enabling that activity. It would be better if the community as a whole worked together to deal with output, not input. Because as long as we continue to make this lucrative for people to be on the streets, they’re going to remain, no matter how much enforcement we put down there.

How have Casa Esperanza’s new sobriety rules impacted the situation on Milpas Street? First and foremost, we totally support their change. It’s all for the positive. Calls on the Lower Eastside continue to drop month after month after month for nuisance-related crimes. Let’s say you have 100 clients, and 80 of them are unruly. What type of service do you think you’re giving the 20 who want the help? Probably pretty poor service because so much of your time and effort is spent wrangling these 80 unruly subjects.

The more you try to help everybody, the more diluted your services become. In Santa Barbara, we’re nestled up against the ocean and the mountains, and there’s only one way in town and only one way out of town. We have a finite amount of resources available here. When you try to help everybody, unfortunately, I think you build an inefficiency quotient. It takes away from the positive work you’re trying to do in the first place.

There’s a push county-wide to make sure warming shelters don’t become ad hoc shelters. We don’t want them to provide so many services that [the homeless] become dependent on them. What we want those to remain are simply temporary shelters to get people out of the elements so they’re not dying of exposure.

Do you have a favorite success story? Hands down, it’s a gentleman by the name of Tyler Richardson. This is when I saw the value of our efforts play out. This is a hard story to tell. Tyler Richardson had been living on our streets for many years. He had amassed a number of citations: drunk in public and open containers. He looked like your typical homeless transient who would wander inebriated, unkempt, foul smelling, but he was not mean. He was relatively pleasant, but standoffish and guarded. Over the course of several months, Officer Hove contacted him and said, “Whatever plan you have for yourself doesn’t seem to be working because I keep contacting you out in the street or in jail. What can we do?” And [Richardson] said, “Well I want to get to Santa Monica. There’s a program down there.” Hove said, “I’ll get you to Santa Monica.”

Well, one thing happens after another and that fell through, but Hove stuck with it and kept contacting this guy. Ultimately a warrant popped up for his arrest, so he got arrested. Officer Hove contacts the Public Defender and the District Attorney’s Office and said, “This is a guy that keeps cycling through our court system. He wants to get into a program. I think I can make that work. What do we all think?”

He kept in contact with the gentleman, and ultimately he graduated the detox program and a sober living program and was doing very well. He came back to Santa Barbara. Officer Hove talked to him on day and asked, “What is it that excites you, gets you out of bed in the morning?” He said, “I used to work with gorillas. In fact, I worked with Koko the gorilla.” We thought that was interesting so Officer Hove made a few phone calls and located the Gorilla Foundation in Redwood City, California. He contacted their Human Resources department, and they said [Richardson] was one of their best employees and asked if we knew where he was. We told them he was here and that we were trying to help him regain his lifestyle.

And they said, oddly enough, they had a job opening and would love to interview him. So we got him a suit, drove him up to Redwood City, and took him to the interview. He did spectacular. They offered him a job living at the foundation, basically what he was doing before. That scared him a little bit, and he opted not to live at the program site. He asked if we could find him a way to get him into a sober-living facility up there because he was going to need that to stay on his path. We found a program that was going to be able to meet his needs and get him to and from the Gorilla Foundation. We took him up there and dropped him off. I was along for the ride.

A few days later, we found out that he had gone missing. So we called up there, called the law enforcement agencies, called the halfway house, and ultimately tracked him down. Sure enough, the pressure of having all of this responsibility back on him was a trigger and caused him to spin out of control again. To their credit, [the Gorilla Foundation staff] said they just viewed it as a leave of absence. Sure enough, they worked through it, and he started working with the gorillas again. He died six months later due to cirrhosis of the liver.

As hard as it is to tell this story, Officer Hove’s efforts got this man back to a life of dignity, one that he deserved. This program works. It’s not for everybody. But there are Tyler Richardsons who walk among us every day.

You’re moving to Internal Affairs. What will that entail? It’s my job to ensure that our officers are following the state guidelines. Complaints come into our department in a number of different formats. We’ve always had a very good history of ensuring that our officers were acting appropriately. I wear this badge with a lot of respect. A police officer who does something stupid in New Jersey affects me here. We’re all painted with a broad brush, and nobody likes the authority figure. The vast majority of times people are contacted by a police officer is for a traffic violation, and that usually costs a lot of money, so you’re interaction with police officers is usually negative.

We are beholden to the public trust, and you can give it away in a second. A lot of police officers do. I am honored to be part of the people who won’t stand for that type of behavior. Luckily we hire really good candidates, and many of the mistakes we make are mistakes of the head not the heart. They are not malicious. We are expected to act within a moment’s notice. We find that sometimes we do make mistakes. I’m excited to have a part in that.

How has your experience in restorative policing been overall? To be honest, there’s been a career satisfaction that I was not expecting when I came to restorative policing. As much satisfaction I got putting a murderer in jail, restoring somebody’s dignity transcends that. It’s been great.


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