St. Cloud’s first Black police chief retires

Courtesy of St. Cloud Police Dept. St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson

He hopes to leave the city better than he found it

Ten years ago, the MSR interviewed William Blair Anderson as he embarked on his then-new role as head of the St. Cloud Police Department. On August, 27, 2012, Anderson was sworn in as St. Cloud’s first Black chief. The MSR recently spoke with Anderson for an exit interview ahead of his retirement in November.

St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson will retire in November after nearly 10 years on the job.  “It doesn’t seem like it’s been 10 years for sure,” said the Central Minnesota city’s first Black police chief in a recent MSR interview. “I’m out of fresh ideas, and I think it’s time for younger folks with fresher eyes and more contemporary ideas than I have to take the chair.”

Assistant Chief Jeff Oxton will assume the chief’s job on Nov. 30, and current Commander Brett Mushatt will be promoted to assistant chief. 

“That’s why I had a succession plan. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” noted Anderson. To promote from within the department, “that was also part of my plan. I think part of my job, and I think part of any CEO job, is to develop the people you have internally. That was all deliberate.”

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis hired Anderson in 2012. In a separate interview, Kleis told the MSR, “I offered him the job at the [final] interview. He wasn’t expecting it so he was caught off guard. With his leadership style, it’s made a very huge difference.”

Anderson impressed the mayor immediately with his ideas, recalled Kleis. “His leadership was to transform the department. 

“Morale within the St. Cloud Police Department “was bad. One of the things he changed right away is the police motto —to protect and serve. He flipped it to ‘service first.’

““I’d been mayor six or seven years, and our focus has always been on engagement. We now have in our police department a division of engagement. I don’t know many police departments that have that at all.”

Virtually upon his arrival Anderson introduced the “Wheel of Integrity” principles — accountability, honesty, humility, respect and transparency—and installed it at the entrance of police headquarters, and proudly listed it on the St. Cloud city website.

Kleis said what also impressed him was Anderson’s insistence that all his officers be involved in the community outside of the job. The chief himself started a mentoring program for youngsters who might need more help in staying straight.  

“I liked that because he said that during our interview he wouldn’t hire anybody if they haven’t been a volunteer. If they don’t have some type of commitment to their community in some way, they’re not good to the community. That’s why I hired him,” added Kleis.

Said Anderson, “I told him last night at the [Oct. 6] tribute that the NAACP had for me, he helped make all of my dreams come true—he and a whole bunch of other people. I’m so glad that he had faith in me to put me in a position to do some good work.”

The Detroit-born Anderson, an eight-year Army veteran, has spent nearly a quarter of his adult life in law enforcement. Before St. Cloud, Anderson served 15 years as Dakota County sheriff and Carver County chief deputy.  

Why law enforcement? “I think the profession chose me,” said Anderson. “The rest is my upbringing, how I was raised. I was raised to take people how they come to you. I was raised to show other people respect. That way you can demand the same in return. I was raised to be of service to other people.  

“I know most people don’t think of being a police officer as that, but that’s what it is at its core,” added Anderson. “This uniform is a symbol of a lot of things. For some people, it’s a symbol of service and sacrifice and heroism. 

Chief William Anderson St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis
Photo by Charles Hallman

“For others, it’s a symbol of oppression, a symbol of brutality, and it’s a symbol of days gone by when because of the color of our skin there’s no way we were going to get a fair shake.

“So, for me to be able to represent that in a positive light and use that platform to be a service to all people, particularly people who look like us, that’s how I approached this job for 27 years,” said Anderson.

Why St. Cloud, a city with a well-known troubled racial history? “I went there and saw for myself,” recalled Anderson. 

“Being from Detroit and having a praying mother, I was always taught to get your own information. See for yourself what’s going on. Don’t just trust what someone else is saying. So, I went there and I spent a few days there [in St. Cloud]. I walked around and I talked to people—they had no idea I was a candidate for chief of police.  

“I just asked simple questions and I liked the responses that I got. I liked the interactions that I had with people of all races, of all colors,” said Anderson. “Number two, I talked to my mentor[s]” including former St. Paul police chief Bill Finney. “When I talked to him about it, the most salient point he made to me was find a place that has some problems you can solve, and that’s where you should be.

“I did my homework and I did a deeper dive into some of what some of their issues were. I kept coming back saying, ‘I can fix that.’”

“He’s been very active in the community,” said Kleis, who remembered some telling him Anderson wouldn’t be in the city for too long—some even wishing for him to fail. “As our community changed, it’s important that all our leadership reflects the community and the changing demographics over the years, and he incorporated that into the department.”

During his tenure, Anderson confronted and dealt with many challenges that came his way, including a knife attack at a local mall in 2016 that authorities say was motivated by radical Islamic groups. 

During the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, he, Kleis, and other community leaders worked tirelessly to defuse a false social media post of a police shooting. He also has been outspoken over “defund the police” discussions.

The state of law enforcement today? “The pendulum is starting to swing back, but it’s going to take a while for us to get back to after 9-11,” said Anderson. 

“Then, there was no group that was more trustworthy than public safety professionals. I think 21 years later it’s the opposite—there’s no profession, particularly police, that is as least-trusted. The sad part about that is it’s not all based on truth and facts.

“I’ve said it before,” said Anderson: “99%—the vast majority of men and women out here doing this job—are doing it the right way for the right reasons. When they make a mistake, they get blowtorched.

“We’re in a bad spot right now,” continued the retiring police chief, “because we can’t attract good people to come into this profession because of the narrative for the last three years. If we don’t do something to help swing that pendulum back, we’re going to be in even bigger trouble, because who we’re going to be left with [are] the folks in this profession who have no business being in it.”

Finally, his legacy: “That’s for other people to decide,” concluded Anderson, using the lessons he learned from his folks and others over the years— “to leave it better than you found it.  That’s what I tried to do in St. Cloud.”

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