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MINOT, N.D. (AP) — Don't tell Ward County Sheriff's Deputy Ann Millerbernd that law enforcement is a thankless job. She's heard that before, and she disagrees.
"Anytime I am out in the community and I get a smile, a handshake or a hug, that's priceless," she said. "I don't think I have had a day since I started, no matter how hard the day and I have some hard ones that I didn't feel a sense of pride when I put on this uniform and go out and get in my car. I don't have a day I don't want to be here, because there's a new opportunity to change a life every day."
Millerbernd is out to change as many lives as possible by making every minute count, the Minot Daily News (http://bit.ly/1KLavLH ) reported.
Her volunteer appearances at many community activities have made her a familiar face in the county. Whether it's Minot's National Night Out block party or a motorcycle club's event for youth, Millerbernd gets involved. She especially has a heart for Special Olympics and working with people with disabilities. She is an adviser with the Minot Police Department's Police Explorers program, which exposes youth aged 13 to 21 to law enforcement careers.
"My calendar is always full," she said.
She said her passion for volunteering really developed while in Minot. However, even before coming to Minot, she had received a President's Volunteer Service Award for more than 270 hours of volunteer service in Minnesota in 2008.
"The only way to actually give to your community is to be out there and give yourself," she said. "When I said the oath to protect and serve, I believe that. The service aspect means so much more because you don't have to do so much protection if you are actually doing the serving."
Millerbernd, 36, joined the sheriff's department Dec. 1, 2011. She initially was a road deputy. She now is a civil processor and crime prevention officer, speaking in schools and to various groups.
Millerbernd said she was drawn to community policing, but the Ward County department didn't have a program or the resources to offer any extensive outreach. Telling Millerbernd something can't be done only fuels her fire, though. She credits Sheriff Steve Kukowski for encouraging her to attempt whatever project she devises.
Kukowski said Millerbernd is the department's go-to person when it comes to organizing outreach.
"She just takes on a lot of extra duties and is always willing to help," he said. "A lot of times she does it on her own time. She does a good job with it. She's very good with the public. I get a lot of comments on how good she is."
Millerbernd also is a CPR/AED/first aid instructor who has trained 133 corrections and law enforcement officers so far. She has taught civil process to future law officers at Lake Region State College. She also is an instructor with the N.D. Peace Officer Standards & Training.
This year, she became an instructor in Traffic Occupant Protection Strategies, teaching proper seat belt and car seat use to law officers. She said she felt the need to promote the training after responding to a crash in which an improperly restrained child was killed.
It was another experience saving a vehicle occupant from drowning after a watery crash last year that led her to change her job role. The high-risk incident, for which she earned her second life-saving award and a bravery award, took an emotional toll. She was ready for a new assignment.
Civil process jobs aren't in high demand. They aren't deemed the most exciting of law enforcement work.
"It's what you make of it because I certainly have my share of excitement and fun on the job," Millerbernd said. "It's more hands-on with the community. It gives me a chance to really get to know the community I am serving ... I get to actually hear what's going on in the person's life."
It's a part of law enforcement that resonates her because her own story has had its ups and downs.
Millerbernd's work history started at McDonalds Restaurant, where she worked for nine years. She became a bank teller and loved it.
She left the last bank she worked for because she was at ethical odds with some practices. The bank later was closed down. That experience and her involvement with a neighborhood watch sparked a latent interest in law enforcement. But it wasn't until after operating a child-care center in her home in Lexington, Minn., for four years that she acted on that interest and enrolled at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
She graduated with a bachelor degree in law enforcement in 2-1/2 years while also running a 24-hour child-care home. Classes that weren't online were at night.
"I even took kids with me. We always found a way to make it work," she said.
She grew up in a home of nine children, where a priority wasn't placed on higher education. So Millerbernd was determined to prove herself to family members dubious about her ability to pull off a degree, which she did in July 2011.
At that time, law enforcement agencies in Minnesota weren't hiring. Desperate for a job with school loans coming due, Millerbernd did a computer search of cop jobs in North Dakota and found some openings. She interviewed at the Bismarck Police Department and Ward County Sheriff's Office, landing a job just in time to make her first student loan payment.
One of her hardest decisions came the next month when Bismarck responded with a job offer. She turned it down.
"The fact that Ward County took a chance on an unknown person and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, I can never say thank you enough," Millerbernd said. She decided she would give Ward County two years. That was nearly four years ago.
Coming to North Dakota meant leaving behind family, including two teenaged children who live with their father. It gives her cell phone and frequent traveler miles a workout, but she's not complaining.
"I know for a fact I would not be able to impact people and have the opportunities that I have now had I not been here," Millerbernd said. "People say, 'Once a cop, it's in your blood. I agree. It's a lifestyle now. It's not a job. It's not a career. It's who I am."
Millerbernd's efforts have earned her the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce's Eagle Award, which recognizes people who go beyond the call of duty, as well as an exceptional performance award in connection with a methamphetamine and weapons seizure. Her time with Ward County also has shown her a side of law enforcement that differs from her perception at the time she left child care for the new career.
"I wanted to do something else to fight for the good guys. Now that 'good guys, bad guys concept' is completely gone for me. There's no such thing as good guys, bad guys. There are people who make bad choices because of circumstances in their lives," she said. "Every day we make decisions that impact how we move forward."
Sometimes it's lack of information about local resources that result in poor choices and contact with law enforcement. Millerbernd travels well stocked with referral phone numbers and resource information, not to mention kids' toys, blankets, pet food and snack items she gives away.
"I am more about the community-oriented policing and reducing recidivism," she said. "When I have to make a decision to make an arrest, I don't take that lightly. You are taking their life, liberty and happiness, the ability to support their family. You are taking that away the moment you put the handcuffs on them."
She hands out her business card everywhere to people she meets, even if she's arresting them. Some people actually call her, and she feels honored when they turn to her with whatever matter they are facing.
Nor does she feel defeated if someone she arrested doesn't immediately make better choices. Maybe they will tomorrow.
Down the road, the number of drunken driving arrests or warrants served isn't going to matter, Millerbernd said. What will matter is whether she positively influenced people.
"That's why I try to make sure that all of my encounters are positive. If they don't start out that way, they are going to end that way," she said.
In doing that, Millerbernd said, she has discovered that even though she is paying it forward, she somehow still gets to keep all the reward.
"I go home with a full heart," she said. "That's what drives me to do my job every day."
Information from: Minot Daily News, http://www.minotdailynews.com
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