Michael McGinn, a sociology alumnus who has been a St. Paul police officer for seven years, recently was awarded two Life-Saving Awards by his department. He patrols the West District, which includes Midway, Highland Park, Mac-Groveland and many other areas. In one incident, he lifted a 300-pound engine off the driver of a crashed car, and in another, he was part of a team that saved a man about to jump off a bridge.
What’s it like to patrol St. Paul streets from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.? You have to think on your feet. I love when life comes at you unscripted. When I go to work, I have no idea what I’ll encounter. Some of the things we come across are suicides, car accidents, shooting victims, domestic assaults, burglaries, barking dogs.
The most gratifying thing is to go into a situation where there’s obvious dysfunction and try to better the situation.
On calls, it usually helps to be calm, soft spoken and compassionate. I’m a big guy and when I need to, I can have a booming voice. My attitude is that I’m not there to bust somebody. I need to view the situation from their point of view.
Do you get burned out? No. I have perspective. I know that people can get through most things.
Like last night, there was a horrible crash, but because [as an officer] you see it so much, you learn to deal with pressure. A woman who was eight-months pregnant was pinned in a car. Her mother arrived on the crash scene, and I knew she was going to collapse when she saw the sight, so I held her hand as she collapsed and I talked to her calmly. [The pregnant woman delivered a healthy baby girl the next day.]
One of your life-saving awards was for pulling a 300-pound engine off a crash victim. Describe the scene. In warm weather, groups of kids gather in souped-up cars. When we see them gather, we try to be there. If they sit there too long, they set up races (by texting their friends to show up). We turn on our lights as a sign for them to disperse. They understand that.
A large group gathered on State Street near Plato Boulevard. I turned on my lights and expected them to leave. One young man decided to drive away in the oncoming-traffic lane and turn right on Plato. I wove through all the parked cars that had gathered and followed him. When I turned on Plato, the driver was already down to Robert Street and I could see him go through a red light.
A nurse in an SUV, who was coming home from her shift, was driving through the light and tried to stop. The man’s car swerved and made it through. But it must have thrown his car out of balance, and he lost control. As I got to Robert Street, I didn’t see anything. On the right, there was a pile of debris stacked against a tree. It didn’t look like a vehicle at all. I ran to the tree with a sick feeling. It was very dark: No flames. No smoke. No dust. I saw a steering wheel on the grass. Twenty yards away I could see the other half of the mangled car. I saw legs under an engine and heard distressed breathing. I put on gloves and pulled the engine off him and called for medics. I think it was mostly adrenaline that helped me lift the engine.
His life has been changed irrevocably. His femur and arm and some ribs were broken; he had collapsed lungs and a mess of injuries. Firefighters were arriving on the scene because they had never seen an accident like that where someone actually survived.
It was humbling to receive the award. I was being praised for someone else’s tragedy. I thought, “He’s had his life changed horribly, and I’m wearing a medal.”
Your father, Michael G. McGinn, the U.S. marshal for Minnesota, is a retired St. Paul police officer. What did you think of his job when you were a kid? I thought his job was the coolest thing in the world. I thought that being an officer was my destiny. I was surrounded by officers and police culture. Through Boy Scouts, I was a St. Paul Police Explorer, in which teens get to explore the job.
But in college, I didn’t want anything to do with cops. I didn’t think the lifestyle and culture were healthy.
Years later, the city posted a job for police officers and the requirements were a four-year degree and life experience. I thought, “I have that!” I compared pensions, and they’re great for firefighters and police officers. I called my dad and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
What do your children think of your job? My youngest son, Dominic, is somewhat impressed. He’s 10. My older son, Kyle, goes to Hill-Murray High School; he wants to be a writer.
Has studying sociology influenced your police work? I started out very ambitiously. I wanted to major in sociology and political science with a business minor and a teaching certificate. I transferred from Lakewood Community College to St. Thomas. I didn’t come to St. Thomas to get a job; I came to learn how to think. But I already was married and had a child, so I had to narrow my focus.
Meg Wilkes Karraker was very important to me. She was wonderful and very supportive. She became my adviser when John Gessner died. John’s death hit me hard. He was an extremely important influence on me. It’s affected how I deal with people. I learned to have an open view of what this world’s all about and not to limit myself. He did everything he could to make subject matter come to life. He said to get out and experience everything, and “Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know and don’t understand.”
Why do you prefer to work the night shift? I avoided the afternoon shift because I wanted to see my wife, Amy, and kids. I sleep while they’re at school. I can coach and attend events during the day and evening. I get to be a dad.
What’s next? I’ve been working for the city since I was 15. I want to be a Renaissance man. I’m not a label. A police officer is what I am doing now. I like what I do. I have 14 years left to work, and then I can retire and live life more on my terms.
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