ST. CLOUD - One of the first actions Blair Anderson took as police chief in St. Cloud was arguably one of the most unpopular with the department's rank and file.
"There were people who revolted at the beginning," said Anderson, 55, who retired Wednesday after leading the department for 10 years.
The controversial directive? That all officers wear caps — the formal short-brimmed hats that display the department's logo — while in public or interacting with citizens. Anderson credited his military background for influencing the decision: It's practical because it helps officers spot one another in crowds. It looks professional. And taxpayers were already paying for them as part of the department's uniform allowance.
"When I instituted the policy, I gave everyone 90 days to comply. Then I got a call from the uniform store. They said there's a stampede in here," Anderson said with a laugh on Thursday, his first day of retirement, while he was out picking up golf clubs — preparing for his next adventure.
Some of the pushback was likely because Anderson, who was born in Detroit and previously worked at sheriff's departments in the Twin Cities, was an outsider. But he quickly earned a reputation as someone who wasn't afraid to speak candidly and who prioritized relationships with the community.
When Anderson joined the department in 2012, he was the city's first Black police chief and thought to be the first Black police chief in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities. He handled himself with grace during times when his identities — as police chief, a strong defender of his officers and a Black man living in an era of racial reckoning — could have clashed, said James Alberts, a St. Cloud pastor.
Alberts was one of several community partners Anderson called on to help dispel rumors in June 2020 — just weeks after George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police officers — when a St. Cloud police officer was shot in the hand during a scuffle with an 18-year-old Black man. On social media, misinformation spread rampant — that officers shot and killed a teenager. Protesters gathered for three nights, but no one was hurt.
"St. Cloud does not have a riot story because of how he handled it," Alberts said.
Buddy King, who advocates for the African American community in central Minnesota, said he and Anderson brainstormed "a chalkboard full of ideas" shortly after Anderson took office. King said they dreamed of a program that would put troubled teenage boys on the right track through a weeklong camp and ongoing mentorship program.
"That following summer, it happened," King said of the St. Cloud Youth Leadership Academy, which Anderson started in 2013 and later expanded to mentor girls, too.
"He took engagement to heart," said Dave Kleis, St. Cloud mayor, who said Anderson led the department through many challenges with integrity and respect. Those trying times included a nine-hour standoff at a St. Cloud bank last year and the 2016 stabbing at a St. Cloud mall where a 20-year-old man injured 10 people before being shot to death by an off-duty police officer.
The attacker was Somali American, which drew St. Cloud into the national conversation about immigration at a time when then-candidate Donald Trump was calling for the country to reduce the number of immigrants coming into it. Hosts from the national Fox News channel asked Anderson if he — living in a city with some 6,000 Somali residents — was worried about who was coming into the country.
"My job is public safety; it's not immigration policy," Anderson responded. "I can tell you the vast majority of all of our citizens — no matter their ethnicity — are fine, hardworking people. And now is not the time for us to be divisive. We already have a very cohesive community and I suspect that this will draw us even closer together."
Some might expect Anderson to be gruff or hardened after hearing him tell stories about dodging bullets on his way to school in Detroit or being the victim of a hate crime as a young adult when a suspected neo-Nazi group firebombed his St. Paul home in the 1990s.
But Anderson, who calls himself a "good old-fashioned Midwestern boy," is deliberate in his optimism.
"I'm that goofy kid who believed my mom and dad who said, 'You can be whoever you want to be — but you've got to work for it,'" he said.
Anderson considers himself a product of those hardworking parents, who had high expectations, as well as the community that supported him as a kid, including former teachers and police officers. He uses the African proverb — "It takes a village to raise a child" — to describe his upbringing.
And, during his tenure as chief, he infused that village ideal into numerous endeavors. That includes the school resource officer program and the community outpost known as the COP House, which took a crime-ridden property and replaced it with a space that's home to a handful of police and wellness services, after-school homework programs and more.
While Anderson calls the COP House the "crown jewel" of his career, the event that had the single greatest impact during his tenure was Floyd's death
"We shouldn't be reduced to our lowest common denominator," Anderson said of former officer Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd pleaded for his life. "The vast majority of men and women out here doing this job are doing it the right way for the right reasons."
But since Floyd's death and ensuing calls to defund police, many people have left the profession. Anderson thinks it will take years to recover.
"At some of the exit interviews that we did — well, mostly all of them — the theme was the same: People were like, 'I don't want to go to prison for making a mistake doing my job.' And that makes sense to me," he said. "Now, I get it — if we mess up, perhaps people die. But I think what was lost is that ours is probably one of the few professions where we can do everything right and somebody dies. I took a lot of heat for saying things like that, but I don't care because it's the truth."
Anderson said he's retiring now because his age allows him to receive full benefits without penalty. The timing also feels right.
"I think the city of St. Cloud is set for at least three decades to come — and I don't say that lightly," Anderson said, referring to new leaders — Chief Jeff Oxton and Assistant Chief Brett Mushatt — and others.
Oxton and Mushatt, both St. Cloud natives, will be sworn in to their new roles Monday. As for Anderson: "As much as I hate winter, I'm not going anywhere," he said.
"But my plan is to go someplace warm and play golf until spring."