Superintendent Anthony Burrell reflects on first year as State’s Patrol’s top leader

It’s accurate to say that Tony Burrell has dedicated his entire professional career to serving and protecting Wisconsin residents and visitors. A 30-year law enforcement veteran, it’s also accurate to say that Burrell – Wisconsin’s first African American State Patrol superintendent – ended up in the Badger State due to an “unexpected break.”.

Born in Tylertown, Mississippi, 53 years ago, Burrell was young when his parents decided to head north, intending to relocate in the Detroit area. About three hours south of Chicago, the family’s vehicle broke down. At the encouragement of family, the Burrells settled on Milwaukee’s north side. 

“Growing up, I remember meeting police officers and thinking that law enforcement would be a great way to help people and give back to your community,” Burrell said. Those early life experiences would prove prophetic.

At Milwaukee’s Bradley Tech High School, Burrell competed in football, basketball and track. He earned a Finance Degree from Upper Iowa University and later graduated from the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety.

After attending a State Patrol open-house event, Burrell was intrigued by the Patrol’s dedication, tradition, military-like camaraderie and statewide role in public safety. He applied, graduated as part of the State Patrol’s 40th recruit class and began his law enforcement career in 1990 as a trooper in St. Croix County. He rose steadily through the ranks, promoted to sergeant and lieutenant. In 2015, Burrell was named captain of the State Patrol’s 11-county Northeast Region. Then came another life-changing event.

On March 24, 2015 in Fond du Lac County, State Trooper Trevor Casper encountered a bank robbery suspect – who earlier that day – shot and killed an innocent bystander. As Burrell and other officers rushed to the scene to provide back-up, the murder/robbery suspect opened fire on the 21-year old Casper. Seriously wounded, Casper was able to return fire, killing the suspect. Despite life-saving efforts by emergency responders, Casper succumbed to his injuries – one of seven officers to die in the line of duty over the State Patrol’s 80-year history.

Look closely today and you’ll notice a metal bracelet around Burrell’s wrist inscribed with Casper’s name. It serves as a somber reminder and lasting tribute to a fellow officer who made the ultimate sacrifice. To honor Casper and other fallen officers, Burrell has participated in the national “Police Unity Tour” – a 300-mile annual bicycle ride. For his actions that day, Burrell was awarded the Medal of Valor – the State Patrol’s highest honor for bravery.

“The real hero is Trooper Casper,” Burrell said. “He represented everything we hold dear and true in the law enforcement community – courage, integrity, honor, a desire to serve and protect the public.” 

In January 2019, Gov. Tony Evers announced Burrell’s appointment to serve as superintendent of the Wisconsin State Patrol which includes some 450 sworn officers across the state. Along with enforcing traffic laws, helping stranded motorists, responding to crashes and other incidents, State Patrol inspectors fulfill state and federal roles related to commercial motor vehicle safety. The State Patrol has K9 and aerial support units, works with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies on drug interdiction, human trafficking, and has a growing role in reconstructing crash and crime scenes.

One challenge facing Burrell and the broader law enforcement community: persuading all motorists to travel safely and responsibly. Preliminary data shows that last year in Wisconsin, there were 144,271 traffic-related crashes resulting in 39,450 injuries and 551 fatalities. 

“What’s really tragic is that most of these crashes, injuries and deaths are preventable,” Burrell said. “Our goal is Zero Deaths on Wisconsin roads. We could move dramatically towards that goal if all motorists would simply obey traffic laws – watch their speed, buckle-up and eliminate distractions.”

Another major challenge is attracting a diverse group of people – especially more women and minorities – into law enforcement careers. 

“To most effectively carry out our public safety mission, we need to better reflect the diversity of the citizens we serve,” Burrell said. “We strongly encourage people from all cultural and educational backgrounds to consider a rewarding career in law enforcement.”

The State Patrol’s next recruitment period is expected to open this coming fall. No law enforcement experience is needed to apply. Strong candidates are people who enjoy helping others and find satisfaction in giving back to their state and community. Those accepted into the State Patrol Academy (located at Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin) receive six-months of paid training and graduate ready to serve. New officers now have up to five years after being hired to earn an associate degree or 60 college credits. 

Throughout Burrell’s decades of law enforcement service, he’s been guided by one simple, but important attribute: a humble nature.

“My parents always stressed the importance of treating others the way you want to be treated,” Burrell said. “It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me throughout life.”

Likely, it was a lesson Burrell learned about 50 years ago during a long family car ride north that ended unexpectedly in Wisconsin.