PORT TOWNSEND — In previous leadership roles, Thomas Olson had to spend the first few weeks getting used to his surroundings.
That’s not the case as he started his role as the Port Townsend Police Chief.
Olson credited interim Police Chief Troy Surber for enabling a smooth transition as Olson completed his first week on the job Friday.
“It’s been really good being able to have a couple of weeks having (Surber) here with me to kind of walk me through a lot of the processes and procedures and getting to know the community, and introducing me to other important leaders in the community,” Olson said. “He’s been very helpful in that process.
“It’s really valuable.”
Surber, who has spent 24 years in law enforcement, including the past year as interim chief in Port Townsend, plans to retire May 17.
But he spent last week getting Olson up to speed on the department.
“I’m taking it all in right now,” Olson said. “It’s kind of like drinking from a firehose any time you take on a new position, especially an executive-level chief position.
“There’s so much that comes with it.”
Olson, 55, was offered the job in March and began May 3. He previously worked as a deputy chief for the University of Washington Police Department.
Olson was put through an extensive background check before he was offered the position, including interviews with people he hadn’t talked to in more than a decade, City Manager John Mauro said.
The third-party background check not only investigated his personal history, but also his work history, and if it involved any allegations of racism, homophobia or use of excessive force.
“There’s been no evidence to suggest any concerns,” Mauro said.
Olson was accused of fraud involving stock trading in the early 2000s, but it was due to an out-of-state company owner not filing for a business license in Washington to operate as a stockbroker.
Olson was caught in the middle.
Eventually, all fines and fees where thrown out for Olson, who is not allowed to be a stockbroker in the state as part as the agreement.
That investigation was brought up during the background check, and since it was resolved with no fees or penalties, neither the city nor the third-party investigation found any concerns with it, Mauro said on Monday.
“I don’t know what more extensive would be compared to that background check,” Mauro said. “I have no hesitation about his background. Every stone was turned over.”
Olson has 32 years of law enforcement experience between the UWPD and the State Patrol.
In addition to his law enforcement experience, Olson also is a former Senior Master Sergeant of the Washington Air National Guard, and he also served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and the Air Force, a city press release said.
Olson is from Nevis, Minn., a small town where his high school graduating class was 29 people. He and his wife, Rosie, have been married for 15 years and together for 17. She is from a small town in the Amazon jungle in Peru, and he said they’re glad to be returning to a small town and close community.
Olson is currently splitting his time between an apartment in Port Townsend during the week and his home in Auburn, where his wife and kids are still living while the children finish the school year, he said.
The entire family plans to move to Port Townsend this summer.
Olson’s first week was mainly to get his bearings as he finished on-boarding paperwork, got to know the people of the department and other administrative work, he said Thursday afternoon.
Although he’s lived in Washington for the past 33 years, Olson first visited Port Townsend in 2019 after he heard about it from fellow state troopers.
“I came to town and just thought it was a beautiful place,” he said. “It’s just a place we wanted to live.”
He said community is one of his top focuses as chief and for his family.
While he commuted from Auburn to Seattle to work at the University of Washington, he didn’t have time to be involved with the community as much as he wanted. In Port Townsend, he hopes to be active outside of the department, with specific interests in youth sports like golf and football that his son Ryan, 13, and possibly his daughter, Alejandra, 10, would participate in.
On the job, Olson said he wants to take a very good police department and make it great and work to integrate its officers more into the community to help build trust, especially in light of national unrest regarding policing.
“With how challenging the times are right now, that’s a big goal in and of itself to work through those national challenges and continue to build the trust with the community, so we can be the public servants we’re asked to be,” he said.
Other goals include getting the department accredited — which demonstrates that the department is using all best practices — increasing transparency for the department, creating a strategic plan — which the department currently lacks — and work through the priorities set by the City Council’s ad hoc committee regarding law enforcement.
The biggest challenge Olson expects to deal with over the next year is attracting high-quality applicants for officers, with a focus on diversity, and retaining the ones the department currently has, as the department is down three officers.
“Diversity doesn’t just happen. It has to be something you really have to want to get done,” Olson said. “My goal for improving is going out and trying to find those types of applicants.”
That project is easier said than done, as police departments nationwide are struggling to find high-quality and qualified applicants, Olson said.
Mauro said he’s glad to welcome Olson to Port Townsend.
“I feel elated that we have a qualified, competent and very personable chief in place,” Mauro said.
Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected]