A Conversation with Col. William Clay III

Chief of the Belleville Police Department

By Jeannette Cooperman
Photograph by Dilip Vishwanat

The first black officer ever hired by the Belleville, Ill., police department, Bill Clay became its first black sergeant, its first black lieutenant and, last year, its first black chief. And yeah, he knew all along that Belleville had an old reputation as a lily-white German town terrified of East St. Louis and therefore of blackness.

But he’s made his race a nonissue.

Straightforward, decisive and easy in his skin—easy, not just with being black, but with being human—Clay has become popular without trying. He speaks the truth as he sees it, and he doesn’t seek validation from anyone but God. He’s judicious by nature, though—he understands the damage blunt force can do, even verbally, so he always pauses long enough to figure out the best route through the china shop.

There’s a gravitas about Clay, a quiet severity as he opens the door to his office. No doubt the weight of his new role has constrained him, made him cautious. Dreading the inevitable formality, wondering how to crack the authoritarian persona so many police chiefs adopt, I wait for him to speak.

“Did you see my bobblehead?” he asks me.

Er ... yeah. I did notice it. Looks just like you. [He grins, the dimples deep.] I was in tears, laughing! It was a gift from an old friend, Julie Bruch. Back in ’98 there was an on-duty shooting—I shot a guy—and he filed a lawsuit. She was the attorney on the city’s side, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Must be hard to shoot someone.
Well, he had a big old knife, and he just didn’t want to put it down. You can’t bring a knife to a gunfight ... And no, it’s not as hard as you might think. It’s what you have to do in the moment; it’s almost muscle memory. You do it to save your life or somebody else’s.

So what is the hardest part of being a cop?
Death notifications. People have no idea that their life has changed forever. You know. And you can’t hem and haw.

What’s most important?
To be fair. You must strive for that. And fairness is not necessarily giving a break or lowering the boom—and it’s not being robotic, either, and mechanically treating every­body the same way. The thing to do is use discretion, use it wisely. And know you are going to get criticized for using that kind of discretion.

What’s been your scariest experience?
I’ve been in several gunfights and shot people—I’m trying to think if that really scared me. No. I think what was most ... unsettling ... was my early childhood. The uncertainty of things.

Where did you grow up?
On the south side of Chicago. I’m a projects kid, a ghetto child.

What do you mean, exactly, when you say those phrases?
I mean ghetto. Ghetto, ghetto. It wasn’t no Leave It to Beaver. Seventeen floors, infested with gangs, and we lived on the top floor.

How many kids in your family?
Five, and I’m in the middle.

Middle children try harder, right?
They say you get along, compromise, bring people together. I’m not sure the mechanics of my family actually operated that way. I would tend to say I operated more as an older brother than as a middle child.

Did the gangs scare you?
Oh no. I was a product of that. I was in the gangs. So that you could go out and play, you had to be a part of it.

How did your parents counter that?
They insisted that you had to be in when the lights came on, you had to go to school. They had rituals and rules. If there were kids who were having trouble with the gangs, my mother would call me and say, “You take care of that.” And I would.

Most of your childhood friends are dead or in jail—do you feel lucky?
No, I don’t feel it was luck at all. I don’t buy that. We were exceptions, but there were choices made. Values instilled.

What values made the difference?
My mother and father were Christians, and they instilled a love of God and also a fear of God. So every time I was making a decision, my fear was God, not man. And I just didn’t want to be on the wrong side of God.

So what did you tell your friends?
I said, “I have no desire to harm someone who has never harmed me.” We did things that were more mischievous: We’d take straws and little chickpeas and shoot ’em at people on the L, or we’d jump into fountains downtown and take the coins out.

That sounds more like Wally and the Beav than street gangs.
Yeah, but the gangs got increasingly violent, especially when the drugs came. At that point I was getting out of high school—1972—and I decided I needed to get away from there.

You thought about joining the Marines.
Yeah, ’cause I liked their uniform. But as I was leaving [the recruitment office], I saw a guy in all blue and his chevrons were upside down and I said, “What are you?” and he said, “We’re Air Force.” I said, “Oh, I don’t want to join you, you guys have to jump out of planes,” and he said, “You got that backwards. You’re gonna be the guy jumping out of the planes.”

You met your wife in the Air Force—was it love at first sight?
No. She said I was acting like I was very arrogant, and you know what? I was actually shy. But we got past all that nonsense.

What’s the secret to a good marriage?
Opposites attract superficially, but you’ve got to be more alike, at the core, than people say. The other night I said, “Shenita, do we have—” and she said, “Yes.” Our son said, “Mom, you haven’t even given him a chance,” and I said, “She knows.”

You say you got out of the projects when your mom got a nursing degree. What did your dad do?
He was a handyman kind of guy. Once he was a chauffeur, once a houseman. He always had something. He was from Mississippi, and he did not have his diploma, but he was an avid reader. He would read detective novels, those little true crime magazines. He might [slow grin] have been off the actual job market. He did a lot of cash jobs.

What was it like growing up poor?
You could never rely on something being the same—and children need consistency. I didn’t know it at the time. But not knowing if we are going to be here today or out of this house or what dinner is going to be … People say, “I’d like to be a child again.” I have no desire.

Somehow you knew life could be different, though.
Yeah, my mom used to get us in the car on Sundays, and we would drive to white neighborhoods and say, “Look how neat and clean it is! There’s grass and sidewalks and little Fluffy and picket fences ...”

You vowed never to be poor again. How did that vow shape you?
It makes you strive to be independent, to be self-reliant, and that can make you remote, because you tend to be less inclined to trust others. You have to balance that out. You are not an island unto yourself, even if you think you are.

Did all those white picket fences leave you bitter?
No. I think bitterness comes in when helplessness comes in, when you decide that you can’t influence your life.

Do you crave money now?
I have a love of work because I have a love of money. No, not a love of money. A fear of poverty. I’ve never cared about being rich. Some poor folks, they like to buy Lotto tickets. I don’t have to have all of it, I just have to have enough.

After the Air Force, you earned a degree in political science and became a police officer. How would you describe police work?
Ten percent law enforcement, and the rest is all the things other agencies are not available to do, so we’re stuck with them: loud music, mental illness, family fights, boundary disputes, whatever. “He’s got this tree, and I don’t have trees, and the leaves are falling on my side!” Because nobody’s out there, it’s the police. We’re generalists.

How do you keep from getting resigned, weary?
I teach my officers, “Touch it once, fix it.” I don’t want to hear, “We’ll probably be back.” If I hear that on the radio, I actually get on the radio and have them call me. “If you know this problem, why are you leaving it for another officer—or letting it escalate until somebody gets hurt?”

Yet you teach your officers to impose themselves as little as possible.
The least amount of formal action with the largest gain. It’s not a lazy thing; it takes more effort to pull yourself back. But if you are reasonable in your ways, you know that you can’t solve a mother and son’s fight that’s been going on for 12 years. They dropped the ball 15 years ago; what am I going to do with my 15 minutes? You say, “You folks need to consider some kind of counseling; I can’t give you that.” They think you pull out your blue magic wand and it’s all good.

Your son and daughter both graduated from law school—did you ever consider law?
I gave it a thought. If I had done it upfront ... I was very smart in school, but I wouldn’t challenge myself. That’s the baggage that comes with that kind of environment. But I do not live in the past. Living in the past is nothing but regrets, and living in the future is fear.

How have you negotiated the race issue so successfully?
I was a police officer first in Rapid City, and there’s
0.6 percent black population in the entire state of South Dakota. I had a unique opportunity to experience majority and minority and how they interact. The largest minority becomes the nemesis of the majority. And in Rapid City, the Native Americans were the enemy. I was a novelty; people would come up and take pictures of the black police officer, and they’d hug me.

Did you worry about being a novelty on the Belleville force, too?
No. People said, “Are you fearful?” I said, “Why? I will be fine. If you treat people like you want to be treated, you will run into three categories: people who accept you, people who don’t and those who just don’t give a damn.”

You don’t live or die by others’ reactions, do you?
Remember I told you about being remote, how you have to fight that? It’s also a strength. I don’t give a damn if you like me or if you don’t. I don’t draw upon that. I want to be liked; trust me, I am not walking around trying to pick fights. But in the end, I really don’t give a damn if you say, “I don’t approve of you.”

What do you want for your force?
A new police department, a real one [he gestures to the annex building’s dingy back stairs]. We are the largest police department south of Springfield! And I want to see more black females in the department; they have a way of seeing that’s not necessarily mine, but it would make the department more whole.

And for Belleville itself?
I would like to see Belleville continue to grow—and there’s challenges with growth. I don’t want to see the older neighborhoods downtown die or be converted to rental units, concentrating all the economically disadvantaged folks in one area. It’s greed: “I’m going to put four apartments in and charge $600 per apartment. I don’t live in Belleville; I don’t give a damn what happens.” That’s where you have the crime. Western Belleville is closest to East St. Louis, but we have the least problems there. It’s not what you’d think.

What was your first reaction back in December, when your officers found a cross burning on a black resident’s lawn?
Well, I have more information than you do. So as they laid it out to me, I was not overly worked up about it. I did not see it as the act of an organized group. I think we had an isolated incident, and there’s a high probability that it was some juveniles the victim had words with about vandalism in the area.

What did you think of the St. Louis controversy between St. Louis’ mayor and fire chief?
Oh, I had opinions. I had strong opinions about that. If you want people to follow your orders, you have to know how to do the same. I don’t agree with every law or statute, but we are a nation of laws, and you have to abide by them. Or pay the consequences.
How does race affect your life now?
You can go into any nice neighborhood in America and visit and ask questions, and people automatically confer upon you a sense of credibility. If I’m in my blue jeans and I don’t have my police gear, there’s a sense of mistrust. Then it’s “Oh, that’s the chief?” and it’s OK, and they open up.

So the burden is the assumptions people make?
Yeah. Maybe in the back of somebody’s mind it’s “I don’t know if he can really do the job.” It’s hard to quantify. It’s out there. But I don’t let it in here. You’ve got to walk up to me and say, “I just don’t believe you can do this, because you are black.” I’m going to make you say it. You’ve got to be crazy enough to walk up to me and challenge me like that. And most people are not.


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