SWAT team cop relies on instincts
Brett Olsen calls being on the SWAT team the safest kind of police work, because its officers prepare for every contingency.
They even train on what to do when you're wearing jeans and speeding to the scene of a shooting. Olsen, a member of the Salt Lake City police gang and SWAT units, was racing to Trolley Square on Feb. 12 while reaching around in his car for a jacket with a police logo.
"I felt it, I pulled it up and I was trying to put that on as I was driving," Olsen recalled.
Once he arrived, he headed inside without taking time to put on a bulletproof vest.
"He's an idiot," his wife, Emily Olsen, joked as she had lunch on Friday with her husband and their 5-year-old son. She was furious when Olsen told her a few days after the shooting that he wasn't wearing a vest.
Olsen, along with his brother-in-law and former high school classmate, Sgt. Josh Scharman, and detective Dustin Marshall are the three SWAT team members credited with shooting and killing gunman Sulejman Talovic at Trolley Square. Talovic shot and killed five people and wounded four others before police confronted him.
As Olsen arrived at Sicilia Pizza in Salt Lake City on Friday, he was treated like a hero. The restaurant's owner, Amro Hararah, asked Olsen if he and the other officers who confronted Talovic would autograph a picture for him. Olsen said he would do it only if the other cops agreed.
Manager Theresa Salaz hugged Olsen, who said, "Thanks."
"Thank you," Salaz replied.
Olsen said he's a little embarrassed by the attention.
"It sounds kind of cliched to say we were just doing our job, but really that was the job we signed up for," Olsen said.
He smiles when he talks about the excitement and teamwork that comes with being a SWAT officer. "Other than having a family, it is the most rewarding thing I've ever done," Olsen said.
It's also been dangerous. When he sat down with a slice of pizza and a soda, Olsen, 33, a police officer since 2000, recalled the first time he shot at someone.
On April 1, 2005, Olsen and the SWAT team were in South Jordan providing backup on a drug sting. Olsen was supposed to keep pedestrians from entering or fleeing the scene. He said police did not consider the chance that someone might drive a car at him.
But one suspect, alerted that police were there, jumped into a Corvette and drove onto the sidewalk straight at Olsen.
Olsen, between the street and shrubbery, thought: "This is it! This is it! It's happening. He's going to hit me."
Olsen said he went toward the bushes and began firing his shotgun, hoping to make the driver veer away. The Salt Lake County District Attorney said Olsen fired three rounds. One round pierced the Corvette and hit the suspect in the knee.
The driver was caught and sent to prison. Reviews determined Olsen acted properly in firing.
Olsen sees a big difference between that shooting and what he did at Trolley Square. In 2005, Olsen was protecting himself. At the mall, Olsen was trying to save others.
At 6:44 p.m. on Feb. 12, Olsen and other gang detectives, who also serve on the SWAT team, were in a briefing. Olsen expected to spend his shift at the office making plans for a SWAT operation later that week, and was wearing blue jeans and a brown golf shirt.
Then reports came in over the police radio of the shooting at Trolley Square. The officers jumped into vehicles and sped toward the mall.
Seeing his car, witnesses directed Olsen toward victims. But hearing radio reports that Talovic was still shooting, he headed for the gunman.
"The second I got out of the car, I could smell gunpowder in the air," Olsen said.
Olsen got out, went to his trunk and readied his submachine gun. But Olsen did not stop to put on his bulletproof vest - a standard piece of equipment for a SWAT officer.
Olsen, Scharman, Marshall and another SWAT officer formed a team and entered the north door of Pottery Barn Kids. They came around a corner and saw Talovic.
Talovic was exchanging fire with off-duty Ogden police Officer Kenneth Hammond and Salt Lake City patrol Sgt. Andy Oblad, but Olsen said he didn't know that. Olsen could not see the other police officers and thought Talovic was firing at the victims he already shot inside Cabin Fever.
"I knew he was going to kill somebody else," Olsen said.
Olsen, Scharman and Marshall fired on Talovic. Olsen declined to describe what happened then. Scharman has said bullets struck Talovic, then Talovic turned counterclockwise and made eye contact with the SWAT team before more bullets knocked him to the floor.
With Talovic stopped, Olsen said he went to wounded victims Carolyn Tuft and Stacy Hanson at Cabin Fever to see if they could walk to get out of the mall quickly. Badly wounded, they said no. He stood guard over them for a few seconds until other officers arrived.
Then Olsen formed another SWAT team and began searching the mall. Reports of another shooter in the mall proved to be false.
The officers who fired shots were sent home about 45 minutes after the shooting. Reviews have since determined they acted appropriately in using force against Talovic.
Since then, Olsen and his wife have taken a previously planned, weeklong trip to Maui, Hawaii. They returned Wednesday and their faces were still peeling Friday.
Emily Olsen said she tries not to think about what her husband does while he's at work, but she won't ask him to stop. "I want him to do what makes him happy," she said.
Despite the violence he's encountered, Olsen said he wants to stay with SWAT.
"There hasn't been one day where I've been upset that I've had to go to work," Olsen said. "I love everything about this job."
* Talovic handgun probe continues. B3
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