Eric Olsen left the big leagues of the Big Apple almost two years ago, but the relics of his almost 22 years there still reside in his Stony Brook office. Impressive plaques and awards adorn the walls, but it is the small mass card on his desk of a fallen officer that carries the most meaning.
“It was the first time I ever knew a cop who got killed,” Olsen said.
Omar Edwards, a rookie assigned to a housing project in Harlem, was only 25 years old when he was accidentally shot and killed by a fellow police officer in 2009.
Edwards had gotten off of work early and was in plain clothes when he saw someone breaking into a car, and encountered Officer Andrew Dunton and two other officers.
Edwards had his police shield in his pocket, but did not identify himself as a cop when the other three officers ordered him to drop his gun. When Edwards turned towards the officers, Dunton shot him.
“I know that officer [Dunton] felt terrible about it,” Olsen said. “Omar was a bright light.”
Joseph Dunn, a fellow officer and long time friend of Olsen, was working the night Edwards was killed on 125th Street and 2nd Avenue. Olsen was on vacation at the time when Dunn informed him of what had happened.
“He [Olsen] was Edwards’ commanding officer at the time,” Dunn said. “I called to let him know what happened, and he came right home. Here’s a guy on vacation, and he comes home on his own time. That’s the kind of guy he is—not a lot of people would do that.”
Though this was one of the most difficult moments of his career, it only motivated him to continue serving the city of New York. He also had the help of a veteran in the business, a homicide detective—his father.
“Having my father to talk to and understand what I was going through was a huge help,” Olsen said. “He always had good advice.”
Olsen, born in Jamaica, Queens, says his father was a “passive influence” in his becoming a police officer, but he has always loved helping people, and never subscribed to the drudgery of corporate life.
“I didn’t want to be that guy on the train platform early in the morning with a cup of coffee in one hand and a paper in the other, going to work to sit behind a desk all day,” Olsen said.
Olsen attended high school at Archbishop Molloy in Queens. He graduated in 1986, the same year his basketball team won the city championship. From there he went to Queens College and St. John’s, where he majored in criminal justice.
On Oct. 15, 1990, Olsen became a patrolman stationed in the northern tip of Washington Heights, a rough area with 127 homicides in that year, populated mainly by Dominican immigrants.
“It was a real culture shock,” Olsen said. “It was like goin’ into Santo Domingo.”
It was there that Olsen was paired with Dunn. The two worked together for three years in the auto larceny unit and remained close friends ever since.
“He was a great partner,” Dunn said. “Very street smart. We had great success together in locating stolen cars.”
When Olsen and Dunn were first paired up, they were patrolling undercover together in a yellow taxicab at a time when there were no yellow cabs in Harlem. As they were driving, Olsen was running plates on the computer.
“I was just driving along, and Eric says to me, calm as can be, that the car was stolen,” Dunn said.
Dunn made a quick U-turn, and the perp took off. They chased him for a few blocks when he crashed into a fence, and they arrested him.
“I’ll never forget that,” Dunn said. “He was, and still is, so calm under pressure.”
Olsen rose through the ranks quickly. From 1998 to 2000, he was a detective in the Narcotics Division in Washington Heights and the Bronx. In May 2000, he became a sergeant. His last assignments with the NYPD were in the Detective Bureau as the Executive Officer of the Crime Scene Unit and then as the Commanding Officer of Zone #17 Detectives in Queens.
On Sept. 7, 2011, Olsen retired as captain, just shy of 21 and a half years on the force. Just eight days later, he joined the University Police Department at Stony Brook as Assistant Chief of Patrol.
“It was a huge transition,” Olsen said, “but this is also a great opportunity. I would never have left the NYPD to step down.”
Olsen says he enjoys aiding young people at the university, and appreciates being able to give them a chance and offer some guidance.
“In the city, it’s a zero tolerance policy; it’s very business, very IBM,” Olsen said. “At Stony Brook there’s more discretion. If you catch someone in the city with marijuana, you would cuff them, no questions asked. Here, it’s more of a watchman theory. You want to be able to give a young person a chance.”
Though he remains just as busy out on Long Island, Olsen, who is no stranger to working holidays and weekends, is appreciative that the phone does not ring as much and that he has more time to enjoy himself and his family.
“I remember one Easter I went to my mother’s house, walked in the door, and two minutes later walked out,” Olsen said. “I got a call about a shooting in the Bronx and I had to be there.”
Olsen has no wife or children and attributes that to the unpredictable schedule and hours he has had to hold for most of his life, but he is very close with his siblings and their children.
“He [Olsen] spends a lot of time with his family,” Dunn said. “He’s always hanging out with his nieces and nephews and going to their hockey matches.”
Though he has had to sacrifice much of his time, there are perks to being a cop, like having access to city events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “My sisters and their kids got to come the night before and watch the balloons get blown up,” Olsen said. “The looks on the kids’ faces were priceless.”
Olsen has worked on some gruesome cases and saw his fair share of blood and bodies over his 22 years on the force, but never questioned that this is what he was meant to do.
“It never made me want to quit,” Olsen said. “It just made me want to help that much more.”
Edwards was shot in the back