Sgt. Mike Ernster of the St. Paul police is a nice guy who is often the bearer of bad news.
But the St. Paul native, who grew up in Frogtown and graduated from Cretin High School, is exactly that. Whenever there's a homicide, an officer-involved shooting or a newsworthy crime in St. Paul, Ernster — the department's public information officer, commonly called a PIO, and a 29-year veteran — is usually the person appearing on camera and talking to reporters.
Eye On St. Paul recently sat down with the affable Ernster, 54, to learn more about him and the demanding job of police spokesperson. This interview was edited for length.
Q: Why law enforcement?
A: I did have that light-bulb moment, sitting in my parents' basement, wondering what I wanted to do with my career. I was working at a credit union at the time. And I saw all these officers who were coming through the credit union. I liked them. And I started thinking maybe that's something for me.
I went on some ride-alongs and one day, I just said, that's it. It took me 2 1⁄2 years to get hired. Back then there were 800 to 1,000 applicants for every opening.
Q: What was it about those ride-alongs?
A: The excitement of the job. I got a glimpse into what they do. And it really intrigued me, whether it was the calls we went on or the different people you deal with every day.
Q: Tell me about the different jobs you've had as a police officer.
A: I was a patrol officer. I worked afternoon to midnight shift for my first six years. Then I applied for the K9 unit.
Q: How long were you with K9?
A: Eleven years. I've been with two different dogs. My first dog was Bert; he ended up retiring because of a neck injury. I got a second dog. At the time, "Toy Story" was out, and my son liked Buzz Lightyear. So, my second dog was named Buzz.
Q: When did you start as a public information officer?
A: 2015. I had expressed an interest in the role.
A: I thought it would be interesting. It kind of went back to my K9 days. We did a show on Animal Planet called "K9 Cops." I had a camera crew with me while I interacted with this person who was involved in a shooting. I went to take him into custody and fell down and broke my arm.
Through working with that show, I became somewhat comfortable with [talking to the public]. I thought it was important to show people what K9 handlers did. And I thought working as a PIO would be very similar. It was not.
Q: How so?
A: Think of an iceberg. What people see of a PIO is what they see poking above the surface. But there's a very large piece that's underneath the surface. That's the tougher part.
There tends to be three big pieces of public information, any time we deal with a crisis: An officer-involved shooting or when an officer may be injured; daily incidents; and then we have things that are happening within the police department that are positive, that we want people to know about.
Q: Is it hard being the bearer of bad news?
A: Yes. That can be a weight of itself. But it's also very important in the sense that information still needs to come out. Lack of information will always lead to a void that's going to be filled by some narrative and we need to make sure that we're engaged in that conversation.
Q: Do you like the job?
A: I do. I like the busyness. The pace of it is very appealing. Can it be overwhelming? Yes. But on quieter days, I find myself [saying], "Boy, I wish something would happen."
Q: Would you want your kids to be in law enforcement?
A: I don't know. It is made for a certain personality. I worked for 19 years before I worked my first day shift. My wife and I were passing in the night for 19 years. Some people say that's why we're still married [laughs].
Q: You don't have 800 applicants for a job anymore. Why not?
A: I think there are many reasons. From what we've seen in law enforcement in the past three years, I think the scrutiny on law enforcement is turning people [away].
Q: But you carry a gun. You have power. Shouldn't the scrutiny be high?
A: One hundred percent. It's just thinned out the number of people who want to be involved in it.
Q: How do you change that?
A: You can try to break down what is policing. What do we do to try to educate people? I don't think there's anybody that's gotten to know us that's walked away from that encounter liking us less.
Q: Have you made a difference?
A: I would hope so. I've tried to treat people how I want to be treated. How I'd want my wife or my kids or my parents treated. I always tell officers, if you treat everyone like that, I don't think you'll ever have a problem.