ST. CLOUD – The crown jewel of William Blair Anderson's nine years as St. Cloud's police chief looks like any normal house in the suburbs: beige siding, front porch and a view of nearby Haws Park, where depending on the season children may be playing ice hockey, shooting hoops or splashing in the wading pool.
For Anderson, one of only four Black police chiefs in Minnesota, this is much more than a house. It symbolizes how cops and communities can work together during the most challenging time for police in a generation.
As the trial of fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin puts an even bigger microscope on police tactics, Anderson wants to shift the focus in his community to a different and more philosophical change: Instead of police just being the ones you call when things go bad, he wants police to be an omnipresent force for good. And there are few things more omnipresent than a house dedicated to police-community relations.
Not long ago, the lot where this house sits symbolized the problems of the city's southside neighborhood near St. Cloud State University. On it stood an old troubled house where police had been called 100 times over five years. Drugs and guns were common sights in the area, police said. Parents worried about kids going to the park down the street.
One of Anderson's officers had an idea. In that officer's hometown of Racine, Wis., the Police Department had purchased similar problem houses and built anew. Anderson helped form the Greater St. Cloud Public Safety Foundation, which bought the house, knocked it down and rebuilt.
Cops volunteered to lay the foundation and put down sod. Donations flooded in, from Wollak Construction, from U.S. Bank, and from Kemps dairy, which gave a never-ending supply of frozen treats for kids. Since the Community OutPost, or the "COP House," opened in 2017, it's been a place where officers and residents gather to get past barriers that can accompany the badge.
And the $500,000 project has helped stabilize the neighborhood. A 2019 study showed a decline in crimes such as burglaries, theft and liquor-law violations compared to a decade before, while an uptick in narcotics calls and arrests was attributed to more officers spending time in the area.
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., recently introduced federal legislation to promote the use of Community OutPosts nationwide, based on the St. Cloud model.
"We want to engage with kids before there's trouble," Anderson said. "This way they get to see us in a different light, and vice versa."
"I became a cop to make the world more safe, especially for kids," he continued. "Because somebody did it for me. You know the African proverb: 'It takes a village.' Well, I'm that kid who the village raised."
Anderson's upbringing was a template for how a kid in a challenging situation can be lifted up.
He grew up in Detroit's 10th Precinct — "the most violent precinct in the most violent city in the world at that time," as he puts it. He dodged gunfire when he walked to school, yet, strangely, he never felt unsafe. There was a code among criminals back then: He'd witness their spats, but they kept outsiders out of it, especially kids.
Being an elite basketball player gave him a sort of street immunity. He'd wear his letterman jacket, and people would be sure trouble stayed away. He was the sixth of seven kids in a two-parent household, a tight-knit family, but that didn't mean his future was guaranteed. Both of his brothers ended up in prison. "Someone always had their hands on me to make sure I stayed on the right path," he said.
As a kid, Anderson looked up to police. Detroit police didn't mess around; when bad things happened, cops shut things down. But there was also a sense of connection that stuck with him. In elementary school, he loved when a band called "The Blue Pigs" came to play. Made up of Detroit police officers, they played music, danced with puppets and told stories.
After playing basketball at Inver Hills Community College, having his first child and marrying at 19, then serving eight years in the military and having his second son, Anderson wanted to pay it forward. He wanted to positively affect people. He wanted to become a police officer.
"I'll never repay the debt, the investment that was made in me," Anderson said. "But this is how I'm going to try."
Anderson refers to himself as "that corny dude." Even at 53, he approaches policing with an idealism that feels quaint in these tension-filled times. One of his first actions as St. Cloud's police chief was to switch the slogan on squad cars from "Protect and Serve" to "Serve and Protect." He wanted to emphasize service.
"I don't have a lot of rules, but the few I have are nonnegotiable," Anderson said. "At the top of the list is this: We don't strip human beings of their dignity. Not ever. If you do, you're going to have to come and see me, and it's not going to be pleasant."
Anderson knows police tend to be at the end of society's catch basin. When things go wrong, people call 911. Police often find themselves at the end of the line of societal problems like mental health, education or systemic racism.
St. Cloud's COP House aims to change perceptions of police. When school lets out for the day, the doorbell rings at the COP House and dozens of kids stream inside. A grill is frequently fired up for burgers or hot dogs.
Cops coach soccer and basketball leagues. They take kids to weeklong leadership academies and mentor them. Community groups meet there for sewing classes and English lessons. Stearns County Public Health has an office upstairs, and the COP House hosts free medical and dental clinics.
Mahado Ali, a community health worker, struck up a relationship with St. Cloud police in a unique way. During a Black Lives Matter protest in St. Cloud after George Floyd's death, she started talking with officers. What surprised her is they listened.
Since then, Ali has met with Anderson and other police administrators several times to help bridge the gap between her community and the police. "Law enforcement here cares about community engagement," Ali said. "They go out of the way to engage with youth, to offer extra resources to families, and to create programs they know will put these kids on the right path. They're willing to put other people at the table and have conversations. That's huge. Pointing fingers doesn't resolve anything."
Humanizing the badge
Anderson has no misperceptions about problems within policing.
"There's a history of us, the police, abusing the power and authority that's invested in us," he said. "Just because I'm a cop doesn't mean I have forgotten that stuff. [But] you can't just say that just because you're a cop, that means you're brutal, you don't respect people of color."
He also doesn't have pretensions that something could go sideways tomorrow and set back years of progress.
That happened last summer. Not long after Floyd's death, an officer attached to the COP House was shot in the hand while making an arrest. However, disinformation on social media said police had shot two Black men. It was incorrect, but that didn't stop the city from erupting in protests and violence for two days.
"People were angry, people were confused," said Sgt. Ryan Sayre, who supervises the COP House. "Plenty of times, the kids who we'd had through our programs, they were helping us settle people down. ... It's one thing if we as police officers say something, but it's another thing if that kid says something."
Anderson's long-term goal is that this positive police presence can help steer kids from the neighborhood into careers in policing or other community-related programs.
"We already had made huge deposits into the reservoir of trust," he said. "When stuff goes sideways, they aren't coming to burn stuff down. We're humanizing the badge."
Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647