It was a damn fine afternoon all around. I had just landed a reporting gig with the paper, I had a place to live and a few bucks in my pocket and my hair spikes were perfect. The sun was shining, the girls were out and really, what could possibly louse up a day like that?

The long, dark car screeched to a halt at the curb as I walked along Park Street. From the driver’s seat, the chief of Lewiston police glared out with such rage in his eyes, criminals three blocks away turned themselves in.

This was Michael Kelly, a man who was both esteemed and feared as the No. 1 cop in the state’s grittiest city, and he was beholding me with such ferocity it left a bruise.

“In my office,” he said. “I want to talk to you.”

It was an invitation, I suppose, and not a command. But when you’re 20-something and a knee-knocking reporter just a few weeks on the beat, it’s hard to tell the difference. I flashed back to high school days when the red-faced principal with the throbbing temple vein would order me into the chair before his desk. There’s no smoking on school grounds, Mr. LaFlamme. It is not OK to come to class two days a week, Mr. LaFlamme. What did I tell you about nudity in the hallways, Mr. LaFlamme?

And so I shuffled on down to the Lewiston Police Department and resigned myself to a thrashing at the hands of the top cop. But it was a calm discussion when we got down to it. The chief felt I had quoted him out of context in a story I had written about the crime rate in Lewiston. Those remarks got him into trouble with City Hall and – the laws of physics being what they are in regards to the direction human waste will flow in relation to a hill – here he was, trying to set the record straight.

And so, the nature of the relationship was revealed. I was to grill the chief relentlessly for information, he was to yell at me when he fancied I was imperiling an investigation or playing loose with the facts. After the fourth or fifth time my buttocks were thusly chewed, it didn’t hurt so much.

Across the river and up a hill, Auburn Chief Robert Tiner and I were off to a calmer start. He thought I was a little too aggressive in a story I wrote about the misdeeds of one of his detectives, but we hashed it out. He grew weary of my late-night calls with inane questions, but we worked that out, too. There was a horrible photo of the chief that ran in the paper every time his name was mentioned in a story. Really. In that awful photo, the normally dashing Bob Tiner looked like a man who was being forced to chew tinfoil. Make that photo go away, the chief suggested, and maybe he’d continue to hear his phone ringing in the wee hours of night.

Chief Tiner retired after a few years and Dick Small came along. The new chief had a different style but we got along all right. Near the end of his run with the department, he offered me a pizza and beer if I would reveal the source that had released to me a full report on the arrest of the Auburn mayor.

An ugly time was that. I had done my job in securing that tasty report. Chief Small was doing his job by trying to pin down the source of it. But I couldn’t reveal my source any more than he could use thumb screws to extract the information from me. Things got rocky and we didn’t talk so much anymore. He moved on and I stayed put. Phil Crowell came along as the new Auburn chief and like that, old school was replaced by new.

It became clear to me early on that a reporter and a police chief can never be friends. They can hate each other, respect each other or alternate between the two, but they can never give each other nicknames and hang out on weekends like buds.

Their missions are in opposition. The chief runs a department he organized himself to fight crime and preserve the good reputation of the city he serves. The reporter is designed by nature to lay bare the lurid details of those crimes with little regard for the status of the investigation or what light the story will shed on that city.

The chief and the reporter are not on the same side or on the opposite side. They are just two cogs within the same municipality whose gears often mesh. Sometimes, what one does is beneficial to the other. Sometimes, it is not.

In Lewiston, Michael Kelly gave way to William Welch. I got the feeling that Chief Welch had outwitted and outlasted many reporters before I came along. I figured out how he did it, too, after four or five years. I would go into his office to batter him with questions about an investigation. He would distract me with shiny things and talk of baseball so that when I left his office, I had the batting averages of the 1976 Red Sox memorized but not one bit of new information about the story on which I was sent to report.

A wily one was Chief Welch when it came to the handling of a reporter, yet he was never stingy with information. He’s one of those rare birds who looks equally comfortable at the corner of Knox and Spruce as he does at a long meeting with the city council.

And now Welch is on his way out, too. And now comes a man who will represent the sixth chief I will have worked with on this beat I cannot escape. The honorable Michael Bussiere will take the chair in the big office at the LPD, at least temporarily. Here is a man for whom I have enormous respect and admiration. A man I viewed as a leader when he was a mere patrol officer back in the day.

A man that I know sooner or later will become all red-faced and temple-throbbing because of something I have said, written or done. I like to think it’s the nature of the work I do, although maybe I just have that effect on people.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal crime reporter.


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