ERIC OLSEN is a very busy person, but you’d never know it from his calm demeanor. A big man with an easy smile, he settles into a chair, leans back and speaks slowly, as if he’s got all the time in the world.
Olsen, who started as a rookie cop in Kirkland in 1988, has been chief of the (KPD) for the past five years. He oversees 97 officers and about 30 civilians and is responsible for helping prevent and deal with crime in a city that has grown to 81,000 people. He spends long hours behind his badge.
But when he hangs up that badge at the end of the day, he’s Eric: husband, father, soccer coach, Rotary Club member.
Police officers are “just regular people doing a job,” he says.
His upbringing was not so regular. He and his twin sister were raised in Ivory Coast, West Africa, where their parents were missionaries building schools and water systems and documenting tribal languages.
Olsen, who is now 50, grew up speaking French as a second language. Beginning in first grade, he attended an American missionary boarding school in the city of Bouake, returning to the village of Tumodi on school breaks.
When he was in 9th grade his family moved to Minnesota, where Olsen attended high school and college. “That’s where I picked up my goofy accent that I can’t shake,” he says.
He’s wanted to be a cop since he was a little boy. Four years of college and night school earned him a bachelor's degree in history in addition to an associate degree in law enforcement. He later got his master’s in public administration from the University of Washington.
“College doesn’t make you a good cop,” he says, “but the formal education creates opportunities.” He says it also creates good critical thinking skills, the ability to reason and credibility in the community. He’s proud that the majority of KPD officers have a four-year degree.
Olsen came to Kirkland to be near family. He and his wife, Teri, who is from Redmond, live in Monroe with their 18-year-old triplets – two boys and a girl. “My choice is to live outside the community I work in,” Olsen says. “It allows me a mental separation from the job.”
Olsen says the KPD has about 1.2 cops per thousand residents – fewer than other cities in the area. Yet some people feel there is too much police presence, particularly in the new annexation areas. He thinks there are several reasons for this perception.
When the KPD needed five new cars, he chose high visibility black and whites. In the new areas of Finn Hill, north Juanita and Kingsgate, his goal was also high visibility. A desire for additional policing services was “a lot of the reason people wanted annexation,” he says.
The police presence is also noticeable near downtown drinking establishments. “Kirkland turns into a different community in the late night and early morning,” he says. “I will never apologize for working DUI emphasis.”
“The perception is that there’s a cop on every corner,” he adds. “That’s a good thing. If you think there are too many cops, so does the burglar.”
In reality, on each shift there is only one officer for each of the eight districts in the city, plus a K-9 unit and one or two rovers.
HOW DOES Olsen respond to those who think his officers are hardnosed?
“It’s a tough job,” he says. “People either love the cops because they helped them or they hate them because they got in trouble.” He thinks people would be surprised if they knew how often his officers give warnings instead of tickets.
He says another common complaint is that officers can seem rude or abrupt, but explains that this is often necessary for officer safety. For example, officers stand behind drivers during traffic stops so they can see the driver’s hands.
Olsen says the crime rate in Kirkland is relatively low, with the most common crimes being property-related. Violent crimes are rare. High-tech crimes such as identity theft and internet scams are on the rise, however, and he cautions people to use locking mailboxes and never respond to emails asking for account or social security numbers.
His says his biggest challenge is “To maintain the level of service with budget cuts.”
Annexation, although things have settled down, was a challenge as well.
He thinks a lot about succession planning and is actively investing in younger staff members so they can take over as the large pool of older officers nears retirement.
He says the level of community support the KPD receives is very high. He’s excited about the new tool, which he thinks will help the community and police work even more effectively together.
He also looks forward to completion of the new in Totem Lake, slated for early 2014.
Although Olsen works long hours, including two to three evening meetings per week, and could be eligible to retire in three years, he says he has no plans to leave anytime soon. “Kirkland is a plum place to be a police chief. I’d be crazy to go anywhere else.”