Doreen Olko: The Police Chief with Something to Say

GallowayCollensTOPsunsetREVISEDDoreen Olko: The Police Chief with Something to Say

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Sept. 15, 2015)

There is so much more to police work than fighting crime. And there is more to criminal justice than good guys Detroit_GT_ad02catching bad guys. These depths are not often explained in the media, where juicy crime stories are easy clicks and where issues of policing are presented simply for the sake of two-sided debates.

So when city administration decided to make blogging a priority, Auburn Hills Police Chief Doreen Olko took the opportunity. “We decided to tell our own story,” she said.

And that she has. Chief Olko’s blog has covered a variety of topics essential to community policing, including thoughts on body cameras, the need to balance force and compassion when encountering residents in distress, gender on the police force, and even the need for the public to understand the whole story behind the naked cowboy walking on I-75 in a snow storm.

“The blog has been a good way to inform the public,” Chief Olko said. “One example is I wrote about why police response time isn’t the best way to judge a police department’s effectiveness. It really made people feel better knowing what the big picture is.”

Olko is strong in her philosophy that the police are part of a broader social trust “I chose the program at Michigan State because it is seen as a social science. Most don’t teach policing as part of the community,” she said. “Our City Manager likes to say that policing is very personal. And that’s true. Police come to your house when you’re having a sidebar01sponsorcrisis. They are there to bring peace when situations get tense. They’re there to save lives. And we are the only profession where we are entrusted with the use of force on fellow people. That is a very serious responsibility.”

Writing about those responsibilities has increased resident understanding of police work and it has even prompted an internal blog for officers and staff to share thoughts on how to do an even better job for the Auburn Hills Community. “Once I got started, I decided I had something to say,” Olko said.

With a 43 year career, and 18 as Police Chief of a diverse college town with “wonderful people” on the force and in city leadership around her, Olko is in a comfortable place to use her voice. That was not always the case.

Growing up in the Lansing area, Olko did not have any reason to think about law enforcement as a career. In fact it was history and sociology that appealed to her. But when she told a college professor her dream of becoming a history teacher, he dissuaded her by saying that history teachers had to be men because history teachers also had to be coaches.” The ridiculous logic did prompt the young student to reconsider her path. “A friend told me about the criminal justice program and it really appealed to my wanting to help communities. So I went to school to become a police officer.”

The path from there was paved with sexism, which she knew would be part of the job. “At every rank level we had to go through it all over again. Guys would say they wouldn’t listen to a woman, and others would stand up for me and royal_servicesit was always a big thing,” she said “The worst thing you can tell an officer is that you aren’t going to back them up, and they would say that to me, to my face. It’s terrible.”

But it also didn’t take long for the natural leader to learn how to counter it. “I remember this one officer, right after my promotion, he sat through a briefing meeting with his arms crossed and clearly not happy. I had him wait after the meeting and I told him, I can tell you don’t like me. We’re going to ride together every night until we make it or break it. It took about two weeks but we developed a grudging respect for each other.”

“It gets tiring always having to earn credibility,” she said.

When asked about laws that protect women from discrimination, she said the reality in police work is that once you go down the road of complaint it’s nearly impossible to find work, especially back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

“I made a mental record of all the things I wasn’t going to do,” she said.

And in the boss’s chair she’s more than lived up to that vow. “I’m fortunate in that I’ve been here long enough to have hired many of the people I work with,” Chief Olko said. “Our department has a clear mission and values that establishes us as a service-oriented department. We still unlock doors. We treat people with lisa schmidt lawhuman dignity regardless of the situation they are in. We can all agree this is the way we do it. We’re doing what’s right for the right reasons and I think that shared mission helps us stay focused. We have very few internal disputes.”

She also gets to make sure that other women have fair opportunities and respect in their professional roles.  “We have 17% women (including myself) and 83% men — the average nationally in 2013 according to the FBI is 8% women and 92% men,” Olko wrote in her blog titled Women Are Effective Police Officers. “Our workforce is a group of people who focus on their jobs –not gender differences of co workers.”

With all the positive intentions having been set, there is still the reality of the dangers of the job. One particularly hard experience happened in 2005 when an officer responded to the scene of an armed robbery in progress and a suspect made a move that made the officer think the man was going for his gun. The officer used fatal force and then realized there was no gun.

“It was such a tragic and horrible thing,” she said, “and there was a lot of healing that had to take place. That man’s family has such a loss and the officer has gone through counseling but that will always stick with him”

The Auburn Hills Police historically have been on the forefront of innovations in the use of non-lethal methods of gardenfreshADlaw enforcement.  “Locally we were a leader in less that lethal force, using things like tasers, beanbags, and most importantly our attitudes.  The community wants us to use the least amount of force to keep the community safe,” she said.

Another challenging experience for Chief Olko was when a fight broke out at a Pistons basketball game at the Palace of Auburn Hills. It was Nov. 19, 2004 and the Pistons were playing the Indiana Pacers. An argument on the court spread to the stands and the largest brawl in NBA history filled the entertainment venue, with police eventually escorting the Pacers’ bus out of town.

Though the City is used to the Palace hosting circuses, nothing could have prepared Chief Olko for the media circus that followed this infamous fight. “The national media was all over us and we had to have press conferences to update them. It was ridiculous,” she said.  “They camped out everywhere.  And the reporting was so bad.  The national news talked about us like this was a dangerous place, and I got so many angry calls from sports fans for letting the Pacers ride off into sunset.”

All in all it is the day to day interactions that don’t make headlines that matter more to Chief Olko and her team. And the blog has helped her express that to the public.

For example, on Aug. 26 she wrote “Last night, in one of our neighborhoods in the south end of the city we received a seed017_darlene_bignotticall of a subject barricaded in a home with a machete threatening suicide.  He also threatened any officer who tried to come into his room.  He is a young adult with a history of mental health issues who was drunk and suffering from a recent break up with a girlfriend.  We responded to the home and after an hour or so on the phone with him talked him into coming out and going to the hospital for treatment.  No one was injured – no crime was committed.  Sergeant Bryan Eftink and his afternoon shift did a great job of managing a challenging situation and getting a positive outcome.

Today, I was reporting on crime statistics for our city’s state required dashboard.  The dashboard is a requirement in the last few years as part of an open government movement.  While I agree that open and transparent government is a good thing.  I can’t agree that measuring public safety only by crime statistics makes sense.  Last night’s incident is a case in point -there won’t be any crime statistic on that case last night.  No crime was committed – he was a person requiring treatment.  And this type of case is on the rise although crime is not.  Our crime statistics are pretty stable and have been over a long period of time.  But we are seeing increases in mental health type calls.  Last year we responded to 122 calls of this type.  This year to date we have 103 calls.  I didn’t count the drug overdose cases that police have responded to: 5 and the suicides: 3. They do include the attempts at suicide: 25.

No one is looking at or counting this kind of police activity yet it is a major factor in what we do.”CFSEM-123-OaklandCounty115-digital-ad_v2

Even when there is a crime, treating those charged with crime humanely is a priority for the department.  A recent post talked about the care that went into a drug raid.  But what it also shows is how writing sincerely and personally about police work – without the spin or buzzwords one might expect from someone in local governance – helps build trust and understanding in the community.

“This is an interesting job.  Some surprising things happen sometimes,” Chief Olko wrote.  She included an email from an officer who was contacted by a suspect in a drug raid.  The suspect said

‘Thank you for being human beings and upholding the law, no matter the cost to society. Thank you for your professionalism and treating the situation as if it were your own family & people that you personally knew. Also, thank you for not shooting my pit bull, I really appreciate that.’

…I’ve taken out his name and specific address since he and some friends were arrested on the scene and are awaiting trial on drug possession.  I reviewed the report yesterday as I do on all cases when force is used by officers.  In this case we had a search warrant to enter and search this home for illegal drugs (something more than ctechadmarijuana by the way).  Our supervisor, Sergeant Hollenbeck had taken time to put together a plan to raid this home that took into consideration the safety of the officers and the people who lived there.   When we learned there was a pit bull at the home, we even had a special plan to deal with that without having to hurt the dog.  What made it safer is that the persons at the home were very cooperative and did as the officers asked.  The whole matter can be disputed in court, the proper venue, as is the right of the defendants.   When people choose to make a violent response, the chance of injury goes way, way up for both officers and the arrested persons.

‘I must admit I was surprised to hear the defendant called us.  I hope he can get his life straightened out.”

The blog is part of a city-wide effort to communicate openly with residents.  Auburn Hills is also active on various social media accounts.

The department has over 50 sworn officers and over 20,000 calls for service a year according to their website. Learn more about Auburn Hills Police at http://www.auburnhills.org/departments/emergency_services_department/police_division/index.php and check out Chief Olko’s blog at https://ahpdchief.wordpress.com/.

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