St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson is no stranger to racial tension.
He has lived it.
Anderson’s South St. Paul home was firebombed in 1994 while he and his two sons – ages 7 years old and 8 months old at the time – were at home. In the middle of the night, his 7-year-old heard the fire alarm and woke Anderson up, he said.
Anderson suspects a neo-Nazi group in the area was responsible, he said, although no one was ever arrested.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that somebody is treating you a particular way because of what you look like,” said Anderson, who is black. “But the firebombing of my home, with me and my children in it, has to be at the top of the list.”
One year later, Anderson, a Detroit native, who had served eight years in the Army, got into a minority internship program with the Dakota County Sheriff ’s Office. When the internship was over, he became a full-time deputy.
After 15 years in Dakota County, Anderson became chief deputy in Carver County. And in 2012, he became the first black police chief in St. Cloud history.
Anderson became a national figure—and was thrown into another event of racial tension— after a mass stabbing at a St. Cloud mall in September that left 10 people wounded and a suspect dead. Authorities have said the suspect was inspired in part by radical Islamic groups.
ThreeSixty had the opportunity to talk to Anderson about the aftermath of the stabbing, St. Cloud’s Somali community and being a black police officer.
Lee: How has the mall stabbing in September affected St. Cloud’s Somali community?
Anderson: One of the things that we pride ourselves on in St. Cloud is that we build community every day, from the top down. It starts at the mayor’s office and all city departments. We engage our community. We are the epitome of what community policing is supposed to look like, and we do that in a variety of ways.
When those attacks happened, some rumors begin to spread about what may have precipitated that, and that’s exactly what they were—they were rumors. But I think at the end of the day, us having a strong foundation and good community to support and a very inclusive community, whether it’s private business, public entities, you name it, was very helpful. And at the end of the day, I think it strengthened our community rather than weakened it.
L: Do you believe that event influences discrimination against the Muslim community?
A: In our community, we’re fortunate again that that hasn’t happened. Are there people out there who want this to be something else? Of course there are. That doesn’t make it so. We again have been fortunate because we’re acceptable, and when I say we, I mean community leaders no matter where they fall—whether they’re private business owners, whether they are public partners, other law enforcement partners, advocates in our community, the university, I could go on and on. So far we have not experienced that and again I think it’s because we do a phenomenal job of community outreach and engagement across the board.
A lot of people, I don’t think they realize how polarizing some things can be. … The mayor and I make this point often: When people say, Somalis in the community, in this community or that community—in St. Cloud, we’re just a community. We’re a community that has an immigrant population, and it’s not just Somali. There are immigrants from all around the world living in St. Cloud and obviously American-born people as well. But we consider ourselves one community.
L: There have been racial comments going around such as, “Go back to where you came from.” How will you suppress these racist comments and keep the peace?
A: [With] the reasons I just explained. We didn’t just start doing outreach and engagement when this incident happened. As a matter of fact, next week will be our 11th consecutive “CreateCommUNITY” event, which is subtitled, “A Conversation on Race.” And that’s something again that the mayor and other elected officials in conjunction with our private partners and other community leaders put together a long time ago to make sure that that dialogue is there, to make sure that we celebrate all of the wonderful differences that make up our community.
In terms of comments like that, I’ll say this: I don’t know of any place where there are people where there isn’t some conflict. At the end of the day, some people were just raised poorly, because that’s the only place that something like that comes from. It’s a learned behavior. If I had the answers to make that go away, believe me, I would share it. I’d give it away for free.
L: Do you feel a sense of uneasiness when the “Muslim terrorist” topic is mentioned?
A: No. I don’t feel uneasy, and mostly because, unfortunately, that [terrorism] exists in places. History has taught us that.
But usually, again, it’s borne out of ignorance … People from all over the place want to render an opinion about what St. Cloud is, or what kind of place it is, and usually those people haven’t been there. They have no idea the number of ways how we engage our community and they have no idea the level of support that we all give one another.
Uncomfortable subjects don’t make me uneasy. It’s a part of life, and you just have to deal with it when it comes up.
L: Do you think black police officers are put in a difficult position when protesters are demanding more accountability from officers? Does that put extra pressure on black officers?
A: No. Unfortunately it puts extra pressure and more of a spotlight on all police officers. It’s an age-old problem. In my opinion, this is what the problem is: Are there issues in certain places? Are there things that people have a right to be angry about with respect to community and police relations? Absolutely. There absolutely are. However, the vast majority of police officers—and I mean, in the upper 90th percentile—do this job the right way and they do it for the right reasons.
And so for me, it’s unfair that the whole group gets painted with such a broad brush. And I liken that to being a person of color, having grown up in America where we know what it’s like to be judged by the worst element in your group. And no matter what group that is, that’s never been fair, it’s not equitable and it’s divisive. And so I think the same applies here.
This transcript has been edited for length and content.