Steve Anderson retired in August after 10 years leading the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. He spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about his upbringing, his career, leadership lessons, and policing challenges in 2020.

Chief Anderson receives the 2016 PERF Leadership Award from then-PERF President Scott Thomson.


Chuck Wexler:  Steve, can you tell me a bit about your upbringing?

Chief Anderson: I grew up in a rural area of west Kentucky. My family had been there for four or five generations. My dad worked for the newspaper, and we moved to west Tennessee when I was a junior in high school. He took over a newspaper there. I graduated from high school and went into the Air Force.

When I got out, my parents had moved to Sparta, Tennessee, which is in the eastern part of the state. I moved there and started school at Tennessee Tech, working on my engineering degree.

The sheriff and deputy sheriffs there were not paid a salary, so everybody just helped out, including my Dad. I started hanging out at the sheriff’s department, dispatching at night. In 1973, Tennessee passed a statute that said every county had to have a paid sheriff and deputies. The sheriff walked in, threw some papers on the desk, and said, “Fill those out.” So I did, planning on it being a part-time job while I was going to school.

But as everyone in this business knows, once you’re in, you can’t get out. It’s very addictive.

That sheriff term-limited out, and all new deputies were brought in. By hanging out with some of the local lawyers, I was encouraged to go to law school. I came to Nashville, applied to the police department, and my intent was to stay here long enough to finish college, go to law school, and probably work in a district attorney’s office. I started with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department in 1975 and graduated from Belmont University. I then went on to law school while still working as a patrol officer.

If you asked my parents, who are both now deceased, what my biggest accomplishment was, they’d probably say graduating from college. I’m the only person in my family who has. And my most proud accomplishment may be being selected for an honorary doctorate at Belmont.

Wexler: Why did you get your law degree when you were already a police officer?

Chief Anderson: I had set out to work in a district attorney’s office, but by the time I got to law school, I knew I wasn’t going to leave the police department. But when you start something, you finish it. And it was a very good education. The law is  a different way of thinking and analyzing things. It’s been very valuable. I passed the bar, so I’m still licensed in Tennessee as an attorney.

Wexler:  What was the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department like when you started in 1975?

Chief Anderson:  When I started, I came from a rural sheriff’s department. There were only four of us there. So I was accustomed to actually working. But I found out quickly from my police supervisors and fellow officers that it was frowned upon to do any actual work. Sergeants wanted one ticket a day and not much else, or else they had paperwork to actually look at and approve.

Chief [Emmett] Turner [who led the agency from 1996 to 2003] was probably our first chief who started looking at policing with a national perspective, through PERF and the Major Cities Chiefs Association. That’s when we started a Compstat process and evaluating what we did. The meetings started very routinely, without much data. Gradually we moved into being more data-driven and proactive.

Wexler:  What was the department like when Ron Serpas came in as an outsider to serve as chief?

Chief Anderson:  In our police department, we knew what our predecessors had taught us and had done. But Ron brought in a lot of ideas from the outside. He had been with two other police departments by that time, and had taken advantage of a lot of the national conferences. That’s when we became more data-driven and accountable. We reorganized the whole department to be more community-oriented.

It was a good time. But it was very hectic and chaotic, and we had a lot of resignations during that time because some people weren’t interested in moving to that next level.

I served as administrative assistant to three chiefs before Chief Serpas. Then I had been deputy chief for about five years when he started in 2004. Those of us who wanted to pay attention were soaking up all the knowledge that he brought to us, plus taking advantage of information we got from other departments and organizations.

Wexler:  As chief, you sent more of your people to PERF’s Senior Management Institute for Police than any other chief in the country. Why is leadership development training so important to you?

Chief Anderson:  I’ve lost track of how many people we’ve sent, but I think it’s 60-something. I’ve made a point to talk to every one of them when they return, and I haven’t gotten a negative reaction from anyone. There’s the knowledge gained, and there’s also the networking. It’s all very valuable.

We talk about what our agency needs to do and how we need to do it, and that’s reaffirmed when people go to SMIP. It’s not just me saying it.

People also recognize that they’re being noticed and valued by the department. That makes a difference in the mindset of those people, because they know they’re part of the leadership.

I also send civilians, because I recognize that our civilian workforce is just as valuable as the people on the street. Without them, we couldn’t function. And for too long the civilian managers were not recognized, so that was a factor in sending non-sworn personnel.

Wexler:  What have you learned about leadership over your career?

Chief Anderson:  If I could sum it up, it’s about listening and watching. Make sure you listen to people. I learned early on that I needed to spend my day with the people. I needed to spend time with whoever wanted to see me about whatever matter. And once business is conducted, you get into more of a social conversation. It’s all time well spent. You learn a lot about people – their needs, thoughts, and potential.

Then I get my work done at night. Daytime is filled with talking to people within the department or outside functions that it’s necessary for you to attend. It makes for long days, but you have to spend time with people.

One thing I say to prospective chiefs is, “You’re not personally a celebrity, but the chief of police is.” Never think that you’re the celebrity, because it’s the chief of police. Every group in town wants you at their functions, and the community needs to see you.

My routine would be to get up at 5:00 or earlier and spend some time in my home office, catching up on email. I’d get into work and start my day. Then after hours I’d take care of everything that needed to be taken care of, and get home at 8:00 or 9:00 at night. It wasn’t that I was working hard all day, but I was there a lot, because you have to be there. Everybody takes their cues from the chief of police. If the chief of police is in and about all day long, they know they need to be too.

Wexler:  What qualities do you look for in people?

Chief Anderson:  The work ethic is right up front. Compstat is a great place to view a cross-section of the department. I encouraged commanders to bring lieutenants and sergeants to Compstat and let them make presentations. I can name people who I watched as a sergeant at Compstat and recognized that I needed to keep an eye on that person. There are many captains who I first started paying attention to because of their presentations at Compstat. It’s not that Compstat gets you a promotion, but it helps identify people to watch.

When making promotions to captain or deputy chief, you know enough about the individuals to know the selection to make.

In a large department, you can’t know everybody who’s being promoted to sergeant or lieutenant. When we needed to make promotions, I’d tell the deputy chiefs to “start working the list.” That meant to take the sergeants or lieutenants list and start asking about people. We wanted a lot of feedback about the candidates on the list, so that we could sit around the table and make decisions.

The hardest part of my job is picking the best from the best. I always worried about making sure I made the right choice and picked the best candidates.

Wexler:  What have the past seven months been like for you, with COVID-19, demonstrations, and calls for police reform?

Chief Anderson:  There’s been nothing like it. COVID is a new way of life, and I don’t think we’ve made the final adjustment to it yet.

I would tell current chiefs that whatever happens anywhere in policing will be attributed to your city. If something happens in another city and makes headlines, you need to be prepared for it and start talking about it.

There have been waves in the past where activists were anti-police and have wanted changes that did not fit the community. But this is as deep as it has ever been, with the cries to defund the police. And there are more liberal-minded and activist-type individuals on city councils and in other parts of the government, so they’re inclined to adopt some of those suggestions.

Vanderbilt University does a poll every year about all sorts of entities – probably about 15 or 20 different categories, including the police department and government officials. For the last 2-3 years the police department has polled higher than any other government official or entity, in the 80% range. And I would say that if that poll were conducted today, that would still be the case.

But the activist voices are loud, and, for the most part, you’re not hearing the broad spectrum of the community, who would step up and say that they’re happy with the police department.

Wexler:  What has been the greatest challenge of your career?

Chief Anderson:  I like a challenge and want to address it head-on. It was a challenge to bring the community around during town hall meetings after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

We had one town hall meeting organized by a minister in a church in a historically black area. He has three churches and about a 30,000-member congregation. He sent word to me that I could come in the back door, and I told him, “No, I have to come in the front door.” I walked in, and as I got about halfway down the aisle a woman jumped up out of her seat and hugged me. She said, “I was afraid that you weren’t coming.” I had been to another function previously where she was present.

The local paper snapped a picture of us embracing, and it was on the front page of the paper the next morning. That probably did more to quiet Nashville down than anything I did or said. And it was because this woman had met me before and heard me speak, and she felt compelled to make that greeting.

Wexler:  What do you have planned now?

Chief Anderson:  People contact me and are worried that I’m bored. I live on the outskirts of Nashville in a rural area on 12 acres. I’ve got a tractor and all sorts of projects. I’ve been a deputy chief or chief for about 20 years, and that soaks up all your time. So I have tasks I’ve put off, including vintage cars that I’ve bought and have not been able to give enough attention to. I have about six or seven waiting in the wings. I’ve put a building up for my cars in my spare time over the last several years. I have them out and ready to be serviced so I can drive them.

Wexler: Do you have any closing thoughts?

Chief Anderson:  Every day when I was a police officer, from patrol officer right up to chief of police, was a good day. It’s been a great career, and it’s the best job in the world. It’s got its headaches, but the key is surrounding yourself with people a lot smarter than you. And any success I’ve had has a lot to do with the deputy chiefs, commanders, and non-sworn personnel around me.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.