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Dean Olson
Dean Olson. photo by Eric Francis

Dean Olson: Assessing the Threat

by Shelly Steig

In a post-9/11 world, the United States faces a nagging question—how do we stop terrorists from ever striking again?

UNO alum Dean Olson is discovering the answers as he pursues a master's degree from the Homeland Security Leadership Development Program headquartered at the Naval Postgraduate School. The distance-learning program seeks to win the war against terrorism by developing future leaders from local, state and federal organizations responsible for homeland security.

Students from across the United States were chosen from among hundreds of applicants based on their previous homeland security achievements and demonstrated leadership abilities. As part of the 18-month program, Olson travels to Monterey, Calif., where he engages in classroom training the first two weeks during each of the six quarters required for graduation. The rest of the coursework is completed through interactive web-based learning and includes topics such as: Critical Infrastructure: Vulnerability Analysis and Protection; Law Enforcement and Judicial System Issues in Homeland Security; and, Psychology of Fear Management and Terrorism. When he finishes in September 2005, Olson will be the first Nebraskan to graduate from the highly competitive program.

Law and Order

Pursuing the lawless has been a passion for the 53-year-old Olson since he played cops and robbers as a child with his three brothers while growing up in Minneapolis. But life has a way of taking detours. After he married, Olson accepted a job with Firestone, Inc., with plans of becoming a tire center regional manager. A transfer brought him to Omaha, where he saw an intriguing newspaper ad for positions with the police and sheriff's departments and state patrol. Olson knew he had found his calling. "I passed the tests for all three," he says. "The sheriff's department was the first to hire so I took that job and I've never regretted it."

A 26-year veteran of the department, Olson obtained a bachelor's degree criminal justice from UNO in 1985, then followed with a master's degree in public administration in 2000. He also completed the FBI National Academy graduate course in Quantico, Va., with an emphasis in Clinical Forensic Psychology. The case he profiled for his degree involved a serial rapist who had multiple sexual obsessions and had violated at least two women in the Omaha area. Olson tracked the perpetrator for nearly three years before arresting him in Massachusetts and extraditing him to Nebraska—where the convicted rapist was sentenced to 16-plus years.

Through his years in Douglas County law enforcement, Olson served as bureau commander for vice-narcotics and crime scene investigation. He is quick to point out, though, that doing CSI was not nearly as sexy as the popular TV show portrays. Olson called the CBS drama with its high-tech gadgets and neatly-solved mysteries "typical Hollywood glamorization."

Never Forget

On 9/11 Olson was in charge of security at Omaha's Hall of Justice and Civic Center. He first found out about the attacks while filling up the sheriff's department company car at an OPPD service station. As he gassed up the Dodge Stratus, Olson nodded in recognition at another employee topping off his tank. It was around 8:30 a.m. central time and his coworker, who was listening to a radio, said, "You know a plane just crashed into the world trade center." Olson responded, "Oh, really. Well just a few years ago I was on top of the World Trade Center on a tour. Which tower was hit?" The other guy shrugged and said, "I don't know. The story is still unfolding."

As TV and radio stations broadcast the news that another plane had struck a second tower, Olson realized this was not a random tragedy, but a full-fledged attack. "I didn't feel anything like anger or frustration because I was responsible for a lot of people in the building," he recalls. "I kind of went into auto mode. The anger and the frustration came later when I had time to sit back and reflect on things."

Olson decided to positively direct that anger when he saw information for the Homeland Security program in an online catalog. Because he felt that bringing homeland security to the local level was vital since previous defense strategies—where homeland security was regarded as a vague, rare threat and law enforcement agencies treated terrorism as a criminal act that happened overseas, not inside the U.S.—were passé, Olson applied, wrote multiple essays and provided numerous recommendations.

"Because of the way the federal and state systems are structured it was highly fragmented, and law enforcement, especially at the local level, didn't have a lot of homeland security duties per se. I thought it would be nice to develop a leadership capability that could more effectively protect the citizens of this area."

He was accepted and since has completed three courses and is enrolled in three more. Although he still works full time at the sheriff's department heading the criminal investigations bureau, the department has been fully supportive and allows him to study at work. It's a worthwhile trade-off, since Olson, whose wife and two grown children also graduated from UNO, plans to stay in Omaha.

Because Olson believes homegrown terrorists who seek alliances with international groups are an overlooked menace, he has focused his graduate thesis on creating an early warning and threat assessment procedure (called the Terrorism Potential Index) that will identify violence-prone splinter factions from domestic extremist protest groups.

It's a frightening scenario, but one that with his education and experience, Olson is determined will never play out.

e-mail author Shelly Steig at
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