New job allows Aspen cop to solve problems, help homeless
July 9, 2017
Two years ago, Nicholas Olson began cropping up on Aspen beat cops' radar for low-level crimes typically associated with homelessness.
Then 23 years old, he pleaded guilty to trespassing in May 2015 after being caught sleeping in the stairwell of a downtown restaurant. At the time, Olson told Aspen Municipal Judge Brooke Peterson he'd been camping for two-and-a-half years.
"What do you do when you're not camping?" the judge asked. "How do you support yourself?"
"I have food stamps and friends, I guess," Olson responded.
A year later, his life began to spiral out of control.
Last summer and fall he was arrested four times in a two-month period for increasingly disturbing behavior, which appeared to be fueled by methamphetamines and possibly other drugs. Finally, in September, Olson was arrested for allegedly stealing a man's wallet from his hotel room.
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"Nick became homeless about four years ago," Roger Adams, a local case manager for Mind Springs Health, said in a recent interview. "His issues got progressively worse and worse."
A few days after that September arrest, Olson appeared in Aspen District Court and told Judge Chris Seldin he had given up all hope.
"I just want to die," Olson said at the time. "I just don't want to do it myself."
Today, Olson is off street drugs, has re-established contact with his family and is living at a rehabilitation facility in eastern Colorado designed to teach homeless people to live productive lives.
His turnaround has been greatly helped by an experiment the Aspen Police Department started six months ago to help troubled area residents break out of a cycle of jail, drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness.
Officer Andy Atkinson is the face of that experiment, and since January, he has helped several people — including Olson — whose names frequently appear in the police blotter to obtain various forms of treatment so they can get their lives back on track.
Adams — who also works to help people with persistent, life-changing problems escape that cycle — praised Atkinson, the Police Department and the City Council for taking a chance on the experiment.
"For the past few months (the program has) been in play, it's been a huge success," Adams said. "There's a huge need in this community.
"It's a small but persistent group of people in constant contact with law enforcement, not because they're criminals but because they're ill."
Aspen Assistant Police Chief Linda Consuegra agreed.
"Ultimately, you're making a difference in someone's life," she said. "You look at these stories (from the past six months) and you say, 'Oh my gosh, it can actually work. You can change someone's life.'"
For Atkinson, his new job as human services officer is especially gratifying. As opposed to a regular beat cop who often can only react to situations, he said he is now able to be proactive.
"I can solve the problem rather than constantly reacting to it," Atkinson said. "Over time, (the new position) will prove very beneficial to people. It will stop the cycle."
Atkinson, 33, was born and raised in Tehachapi, California, a prison town near Bakersfield, as the second-youngest child in a family of three brothers and three sisters. His father worked at the California Bureau of Automotive Repair, where he conducted investigations into car shops accused of fraudulent repairs, and his mother stayed at home.
Atkinson moved to North Carolina after high school, where he lived for 10 years before heading back west to the Roaring Fork Valley about five years ago because one of his sisters lived in Carbondale. He previously worked as a butcher and a firefighter but said he tired of the reactive work of firefighting and thought he could make a difference as a cop.
"I grew up around a lot of mental illness and drug addiction — not in my family, but in the town I grew up in," Atkinson said. "It's not foreign to me. I have a passion for it. I always tried to do this while I was on patrol."
When Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor persuaded city council members to pay for half the salary of a human services officer to do the kind of proactive policing Atkinson is passionate about, he jumped at the chance.
"I love being a cop and all the excitement (it brings)," he said. "But I also care about people. I like to get a little more engaged."
The Police Department is covering the other half of Atkinson's regular police salary — which is $70,000, Consuegra said — while the council approved the experiment for a year.
Atkinson said he quickly realized that one of the major parts of his new job was discovering all of the services available in the Roaring Fork Valley to people with addiction and/or mental health issues. Now, other officers go to Atkinson for advice.
"They're like, 'Here's what happened. Where do I go?'" he said. "It makes the flow of getting people help a lot easier."
One of the first people he helped was a man with a serious alcohol problem. Atkinson said the man would frequently get drunk, yell at people and end up with minor criminal charges. Atkinson sat down with him while the man was in jail and went through treatment options.
The man was interested, so Atkinson found him a scholarship to a treatment facility in Minnesota, bought him a bus ticket and put him on a Greyhound. The man successfully completed the program, has moved back in with his previously estranged family and is doing well, Atkinson said.
He recently helped a man in his 50s who appeared frequently in the police blotter and has lived in the Aspen area for 25 years. The man used to work various places in town until a downward spiral of alcohol and homelessness led to frequent contact with police.
Deputies at the jail and Atkinson repeatedly talked to the man about treatment options and he began to express interest, he said. Atkinson went to every place the man had worked over the past two-and-a-half decades and asked former co-workers to visit him in jail and encourage him to seek treatment.
It worked. The man recently entered a free, yearlong program in Denver that specializes in helping homeless people lead productive lives, Atkinson said.
"It's a great example of how this community wrapped this guy in support," he said.
While some critics have said Aspen police just want to get rid of the town's homeless community, Atkinson said that's not true.
"I would love to see him come back and get another job here," he said. "We don't want to displace anybody. We just want to give them the best shot at success."
Aspen Deputy District Attorney Sarah Oszczakiewicz said Atkinson's job also is helpful to her as a prosecutor because she is able to learn valuable information about defendants she might not normally have had. That, in turn, allows her to make better decisions about how to protect the community and understand the reasons behind the crime to come up with appropriate sentences.
"I've never had that resource before," she said. "My role as DA is limited to certain things. I'm not necessarily going to come up with a long-term plan, so just to have someone to do that is helpful."
Consuegra said the goal is to make Atkinson's position permanent and to continue to help less fortunate members of the community like Olson, who declined to speak with The Aspen Times for this article.
"I can cry," Consuegra said when Olson's name came up in a recent interview. "To me as a mom especially, this is a child and something happened along the way.
"Who's willing to put up a fight for them? Maybe they just needed some love and attention. Even if we've been able to help just one person, it's worth it to me. And we've been able (so far) to help more than that."