Driven to Policing

Mary Santos-Olsen
Assistant Chief of Police
A.S., 1984

In the early 1980s, Mary Santos-Olsen was a pre-law student at Palm Beach Junior College, working as a sales associate at Jordan Marsh in the old Palm Beach Mall.

At the time, Santos-Olsen didn’t know what area of law to pursue. After talking with the store’s loss prevention officer, who also worked for the West Palm Beach Police Department, she decided to participate in a ride-along, where a civilian rides with a uniformed officer on patrol, to see if criminal law might be her niche. Her first ride-along took her to the scene of a shooting that had just occurred. She was hooked.

“You get that adrenaline,” said Santos-Olsen, recalling the memory. “To get to a scene, to see mass chaos, to try and find witnesses, to care for the person who’s been shot, it was just so amazing. I thought, ‘Wow!’”

That experience inspired Santos-Olsen to do some career research. She found that, at the time, starting salaries for prosecutors were less than starting police officers.

“I was driven to policing,” she said. “I thought this is a better way to positively impact my community, get bad guys off the street and help people who are in crisis, as opposed to being in a courtroom looking over documents.”

The native of West Palm Beach and alumna of Cardinal Newman High School continued to participate in ride-alongs, using them as an opportunity to learn from officers how to do accident and criminal investigations. She also changed her PBJC major from pre-law to law enforcement.

In May of 1984, Santos-Olsen graduated from Palm Beach Junior College with an Associate in Science degree. Shortly thereafter — and a month before her 21st birthday — she was admitted to the College’s police academy, while simultaneously working as a cadet with the West Palm Beach Police Department.

Upon graduation, she was hired as a West Palm Beach police officer and began a career with that agency that would last 30 years. Of Cuban descent and completely bilingual, Santos-Olsen was at the time only the second female Hispanic officer hired by the department.

Santos-Olsen went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in human resource management and a master’s degree in organizational leadership, both from Palm Beach Atlantic University. She attributes the degrees to helping her form a leadership style and shape her interactions with officers and civilian staff members. Knowing she wanted to climb higher in the ranks, she also is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville.

“When you see criteria for chief of police, every job requests that you attend one of two courses, and one of them is the Southern Police Administrative Officers Course. The other one is the FBI National Academy.” The University of Louisville’s program is a three-month intensive course that required Santos-Olsen to leave her family, which included two small children, in Florida. “It was like I was back in college,” she said of the experience.

Her education and determination paid off. She rose through the ranks at the West Palm Beach Police Department: officer, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, interim chief of police, and assistant chief supervising the agency’s operations bureau. In 2014, Santos-Olsen left the organization and became the assistant chief of police with the Delray Beach Police Department.

Since starting her current position, she has been instrumental in increased citizen outreach through community engagement programs; the deployment of the body-worn camera program; and the implementation of the Naloxone/Narcan program for first responders to administer to persons who have overdosed on heroin. Delray Beach is one of only a handful of agencies statewide that issues the opioid reversal drug to officers.

Santos-Olsen recommends law enforcement as a career choice that is both important and fulfilling.

“You can positively impact the community that you serve in so many ways,” she says. “I still am excited, every day that I go to work, that I get to influence an organization and the direction that it goes, and we get to influence our officers in realizing just how important community engagement really is, and how important it is to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons.

“People don’t call us when they’re having parties. People call us when they’re in crisis. You have to have the fortitude for that kind of exposure.”

Watch an interview with Mary Santos-Olsen: