New police chief is a sea change in St. Cloud

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2012 - 9:19 PM

New police chief says he wants to give area youth same help that steered him out of a rough neighborhood into a remarkable career.

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“There’s nothing happening here that isn’t happening everywhere else in America with respect to race relations,” said St. Cloud Police Chief William Anderson.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Leaders here say they weren't trying to do something historic. They just wanted to hire the best cop they could find to replace the retiring police chief.

But their choice made history anyway. When William Anderson took office Aug. 27, he became the 154-year-old city's first black police chief, and he's believed to be the first one outside the Twin Cities metro area.

Anderson, 45, who was hired away from the Carver County Sheriff's Office, comes to a mostly white city periodically besmirched in the past decade by well-publicized incidents of racial animosity, including graffiti aimed at a growing population of Somali immigrants.

But the tall, charismatic law man, whose string of promotions over 17 years put him in several key positions, including overseeing more than 100 employees and 300 inmates in a busy metropolitan jail, is quick to defend his new city.

"I don't want St. Cloud to be characterized as this bastion of intolerance," said Anderson. "There's nothing happening here that isn't happening everywhere else in America with respect to race relations. And I couldn't have scripted a warmer welcome than I've received."

Anderson gets stellar marks from previous employers for his administrative savvy and innovative policing, but the chief says he didn't succeed on his own -- a belief that, he says, informs every decision he makes as a crime fighter, peacemaker and boss.

"You know that African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child? Well, I'm that child," he said, adding that he's indebted to his family, teachers and coaches who kept him on the right track in a bad neighborhood, minority trailblazers who came before him and a legendary Minnesota sheriff who gave him a shot.

"This is what you get when you set people up to succeed," Anderson said recently from behind his desk in St. Cloud's almost new $36.5 million law-enforcement center. "A lot of people helped me, and I owe them all my best efforts now."

Love of order

Anderson, known to his friends by his middle name, Blair, grew up in west Detroit, part of a large family headed by hardworking parents with high expectations.

"I dodged random bullets to get to school, but I don't remember ever not believing I was going to college," he said.

After marrying and having a son by age 19, he served eight years in the Army, which imbued him with a duty to serve the public and a love of "high and tight" order, evident now in his pressed dress uniform, shiny buttons and polished boots.

After his stint in the Army, they moved to his wife's native Minnesota, where he wrote news articles for building-industry publications.

They were living in South St. Paul when someone set their house on fire in the middle of the night, an act for which no one was arrested but Anderson believes was related to demonstrations a neo-Nazi group was making in the area and the attention the young interracial couple attracted.

"Yep, I've been a hate-crime victim, too," Anderson said with a rueful chuckle. "They'd ride up and down the street and hurl epithets and the n-word. We were easy targets. That's been my take on people like that: They're angry with their own circumstances, so they pick an easy target."

In 1995, Dakota County Sheriff Don Gudmundson hired Anderson as part of a minority internship program, and within a year he was a full-time deputy on his way up.

"I'm smart enough to realize I came along at the right time," Anderson said.

But mostly he had the right stuff, said Gudmundson, the only peace officer ever to serve as sheriff in three Minnesota counties and who is now Faribault police chief.

"You don't hire Blair Anderson because he's black," he said. "You hire him because he's a good cop. He's a leader who cares about his people, the community and crime victims. Plus, he has a heart for people who get into trouble and wants to help them turn their lives around."

Gudmundson, also impressed with the way Anderson "sparkles, lighting up every room," methodically promoted him, eventually to commander in charge of the jail.

There, Anderson fostered programs to help inmates better succeed in re-entering society. Meanwhile, Gudmundson, with Anderson's help, made the sheriff's department in Dakota County the most racially diverse police agency in the state.

"We haven't done a good job in this country proving that blacks can police whites, and of course they can," Gudmundson said. "All a person in trouble cares about is the badge and whether they're treated professionally, with fairness and decency."

In his spare time, Anderson went back to school, earning bachelor's and master's degrees.

Last year, after 15 years in Dakota County, Anderson resigned to become chief deputy in Carver County. He was a step closer to what had become a dream: "I wanted to be chief in a municipal police department."

Inspires confidence

For the St. Cloud vacancy, 32 law-enforcement officers from across the state and beyond applied.

A 13-member committee narrowed the list to three. Committee member and St. Cloud State University President Earl H. Potter III said Anderson clearly belonged among them.

"It would be foolish to say we were color blind," Potter said. "We're familiar with St. Cloud's history and the challenges we face."

But, Potter added: "It's not as though he's the right color, and that will send a message. It's exactly not that. It was his values, his presence, and his ability to lead a diverse community and address issues of diversity."

Mayor Dave Kleis said all the feedback from the community since Anderson took office has been positive.

"He really does connect with people, and that's important because we need someone who inspires confidence," Kleis said.

Denise Fale, president of the St. Cloud chapter of the NAACP, said Anderson's appointment "sends a message that central Minnesota is changing."

Fale wished Anderson luck and added that he'll need it, along with all his skills and experience, to address ongoing issues of racist harassment, racial profiling and other problems that keep cropping up.

"It seems to be pervasive in central Minnesota right now, not sporadic," she said. "It's like I'm back in the '60s."

Anderson said he's tackling his new job by putting public safety first while reaching out to every organization, institution and leader in town to strengthen partnerships aimed at heading problems off rather than simply reacting to them. He also wants to expand his department's ability to mentor the city's children to choose the kind of life he's had, full of hope and realized dreams.

"If they have the kind of influences I had, most are going to choose the right road," he said. "That's the best form of crime prevention."

Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751

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