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Jason Olson retired as Minot’s chief of police on Jan. 31. Olson, above with his wife, Lisa, was honored at a public reception at the end of his last day on the job.
Law enforcement has changed dramatically since Jason Olson joined the Minot Police Department more than three decades ago. But Olson’s passion for serving his community has only grown stronger.
As Olson retires after nearly 32 years, the last eight as police chief, his commitment to Minot and its residents is first and foremost in his mind. It always has been.
“I think we learn from our mistakes, and I’ve made my share of mistakes,” he said. “That’s part of life. You regret those. I think everyone would go back and do some things differently. But would I do it all over again? Yes.”
“Looking back, I’m sure I’ve had a bad day or two, but I’ve always enjoyed my job and found it rewarding,” Olson added. “It’s been a challenge, and it’s always been fulfilling.”
Olson’s last day on the job was Jan. 31. He was succeeded by Capt. John Klug, who was named the new Police Chief in mid-January. Klug officially took over Feb. 1.
Olson’s influence on the Minot Police Department will continue long after he clears out his office. He’s worked hard to maintain the department’s culture and professionalism, creating a positive work environment that empowers employees to succeed. He credits his predecessors, Jeff Balentine and Dan Draovitch, for building a strong department and setting expectations of the chief.
“It’s been a good culture here, and I inherited that from Jeff and Dan. I’m just glad I didn’t screw it up,” Olson said, with a laugh. “As long as I’ve been in Minot our department has had a level of respect in the community and a good reputation. Now it’s time for the next person to take over.”
Olson grew up in Williston, and came to Minot State University after graduating high school. He had no intentions of staying.
“I intended to stay at Minot State for one semester to establish a grade point average in science, then go to Montana State at Bozeman for criminal justice,” he said. “But I never left. It’s funny how little things like that happen.”
He married Lisa, his high school sweetheart, when he was just 18. Between his junior and senior years at Minot State, Olson applied for a position with the Minot PD. So did about 120 other people, he recalled.
“I wanted to test strictly for the experience of interviewing,” Olson said. “I had no illusions of being hired at that time. They offered me a job during their second round of hiring. They hired four officers and I was one of them.”
He’s been with the department ever since. Olson spent nine years as a patrol officer before being promoted to sergeant, and following several years as a field supervisor he became the Crime Prevention Sergeant.
“That was out of my element. I am averse to public speaking, but I purposely took that position because it required me to do a lot of public speaking,” Olson said. “It improved my ability and confidence to speak in public, so ultimately that was a good experience for me.”
Olson was promoted to lieutenant, and then to captain in 2010. He spent much of his time in internal investigations, grants and policy work before overseeing patrol and investigations. He was named chief of police in 2012.
“Pretty early on in my career, I certainly wanted to go as far as I could, so I was always taking every training opportunity that I could, working hard to advance my career,” Olson said. “It’s all been rewarding, but a lot of the things I do as chief have nothing to do with what inspired me to be a police officer. It’s a totally different work life than that of a street officer.”
Olson describes the responsibilities of being police chief as akin to overseeing pots on a hot stove.
“As chief, there are a lot of different dishes cooking on the stove. The other day, I made a list and I stopped at 95 items,” he said. “Some of them are simmering on low and don’t need a lot of attention. Others are boiling up from time to time. That’s just the way it is; there’s constant attention to that stove deciding what the top priority is. It’s the nature of the job.”
The challenges associated with being police chief are vastly different than any other position in the department. In addition to overseeing the entire department and determining policy and procedures, Olson said hiring, training, and retaining quality officers has been a constant battle in recent years.
“It’s a challenge to maintain the culture of the department when you have constant turnover,” Olson said, noting that he’s hired 106 officers since becoming chief in 2012. “But even with the turnover, I think our department culture is still very good and our relationship with the community is very positive. I have to give credit to everyone in the department for that.”
The public’s expectations of law enforcement officers are very high, Olson said.
“People want to be treated respectfully. They want to make sure the officer isn’t abusing their power in any way. They want to make sure they aren’t using too much force. They want officers to be well-trained. They want them to respond appropriately at all times,” Olson said. “And then I think, some of these officers are still kids. They’re not perfect, but it’s amazing at how often they are perfect. They do the right thing almost all the time, which is amazing at that age.”
Lisa Olson said she’s appreciated the level of community respect for members of law enforcement and other first responders.
“In public, I’ve always had people who are very appreciative of what Jason does and what the other officers do,” she said. “A lot of people have also thanked me through the years for the role that law enforcement spouses serve, and I think that says a lot about our community.”
As every promotion brought changes to his career, Olson welcomed the skills he learned and the relationships he built at every level on his way to becoming chief.
“Every time you’re promoted, your perspective changes, and that helped me when I became chief,” he said.
While some aspects of police work haven’t changed much, the use of technology and new equipment has completely altered law enforcement since Olson began his career.
“When I started, I carried a paper ticket book, a sidearm, a night stick, and a set of handcuffs. I think that was it,” he said. “The level of training and the level of expectations of an officer have changed dramatically since I started, and that’s made us more professional.”
Officers are carrying with them much more sophisticated equipment than Olson ever did in his days as a street level officer. Body cameras, sophisticated communication equipment, tasers…none of that existed when he began his career.
“The amount of digital evidence is night and day, too. You might go to a scene now and there’s a dozen devices that could potentially have evidence on them,” he said. “To have the training to be able to capture and preserve all that has been a game-changer in how law enforcement approaches a crime scene now.”
Advances in technology have also changed other aspects of police work.
“The chances of being recorded on some kind of device or the chances of having your work file looked at through an open records request have gone way up,” Olson said. “There is definitely more public scrutiny. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; it’s just a fact of life in modern law enforcement.”
One of the most challenging aspects of a career in law enforcement is balancing the demands of work with your personal life. Like other first responders, Olson knows all too well the personal sacrifices that must be made.
“I spent about half my career working as a street level officer on patrol. You’re working shift work, holidays, weekends. You have a lot of demands schedule-wise on your family. But I’ve had excellent support from Lisa and my family my whole career,” Olson said. “I can’t say enough about spouses and families. Being in law enforcement isn’t a choice that affects just the individual; it affects the whole family: moms, dads, spouses, kids.”
Lisa Olson agrees.
“I think there’s kind of two parts to it. For our family, there were a lot of times that I had a single parent role because of Jason’s shift work. Part of it was that he was on the SWAT team, too, so he’d get called on holidays, etc.,” she said. “But on the other hand, law enforcement families are a family, too. There’s always a lot of support from the entire group, if someone gets hurt or is involved in a particularly tough case. I’ve appreciated that support.”
Lisa described the 2002 train derailment and anhydrous spill west of Minot as an example of how the duties of a first responder can conflict with personal lives.
“He was immediately called into work,” she said. “We had three young kids, it’s the middle of the night, and people are calling me trying to get answers. I didn’t know any more than they did at that point,” she said. “So I had to make decisions to keep our family safe when Jason was already at work trying to help keep all of us safe. With someone in law enforcement, your plans can change in a heartbeat, and you have to be able to cope with it.”
The retiring chief said advice from former police chief Draovitch about maintaining a healthy balance between work and home life has stuck with him.
“He used to say, to do this job you have to build up a shell because you’re around death, or a suicide call, an accident where somebody dies, a horrible child abuse call, or a sexual assault. We’re exposed to that all the time. In order to emotionally exist, you have to build up a shell because if you put yourself out there emotionally on every one of those calls, you won’t last,” Olson said. “But at the same time, he said, when you walk through the door at home, you have to crack that shell and become a human being again so you don’t lose that relationship with your family. You have to be a different person when you’re at home.”
With young officers working on the streets every day, finding a healthy coping mechanism is vital to their long-term success.
“These young officers are experiencing a lot of the realities and the harshness of real life in a year’s time that most people don’t experience in a lifetime,” Olson said. “We hope they make good choices in how they cope with the job. I think the most common way first responders cope with things is through peer support.”
Olson said he also advises young officers to build friendships outside of the department.
“I think it’s healthier for them. I’ve been able to do that, so all my friends aren’t here,” he said. “That way, if I make an unpopular decision at work, I can still go fishing on the weekend with somebody that doesn’t care about it.”
Law enforcement officers are certainly exposed to risks on the job, although Olson said the portrayal of the inherent dangers are often dramatized on television. Still, there are real risks, and every officer has different methods to make sure family members know they’re safe.
“My street level experience was more than 17 years ago, but I did spend 18 years on the SWAT team,” Olson said. “We probably got called out 10 times a year. Every time after the incident was over, you’d make that call home just to say ‘Hey, we’re good. Everybody’s OK.’ ”
Despite the strains on family life, after nearly 32 years in law enforcement, Olson reflects fondly on his career.
“I’ve always appreciated working with people that are in public safety. Most people who go into this profession have a heart to help people. If you ask our new officers why they wanted to become police officers, they’ll usually say because they want to help people,” Olson said. “It’s always impressed me that people are willing to do this job even though they are talented enough to do other things that would pay a similar or higher income, but they’ve chosen to serve the public despite the risks and the shift work and everything else that goes with it. It’s been a pleasure to work with all the good people that I’ve gotten to work with. It’s fun to be in a place that’s full of good people with good intentions.”
Lisa said Jason’s law enforcement career has had a positive impact on their own children.
“I think about how proud all three of our children are of their dad. Growing up with Jason in law enforcement has helped create the kind of people they are today, and I know his career in public service is what impacted our youngest son to become a firefighter,” she said. “I’m very proud of what Jason has done. He’s been an excellent police officer and a great chief. I wouldn’t say I’m glad that it’s over, but it will be exciting to see what’s next for him and for us as a family.”
What will the retiring chief miss the most? “That’s easy,” he said. “All the people I’ve worked with.”
What won’t he miss?
“As much as I’ve enjoyed my job, I will not miss the stress,” he said. “I’ve always had a good attitude toward my job, and I like it, but it is a weight of stress. I’m looking forward to having that weight lifted.”