Sgt. Carly Conley, right, of the Lewiston Police Department answers a question Wednesday night from a member of the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council in the City Council chambers in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — They all talk about “the switch” — that inner mechanism police officers must employ to keep their personal feelings from spilling over onto the job.

“We’ll go from fear to anger to sadness a lot of the time,” said Matt Vierling, a 20-year veteran of the force. “You have to deal with it. You move on.”

At a Lewiston Youth Advisory Council panel Wednesday night, the four veteran cops described dealing with the very worst of human behavior. They talked about the ugliness of crimes against children, the horrors of addiction and the tragedy of suicide; all situations that police regularly face on the beat.

Carley Conley, a sergeant with the department, recalled responding to a scene a few weeks ago in which a 22-year-old had shot himself in the head.

“It’s a sad scene,” she said, “but I’m looking at it as an investigation. I’m finding out what we can do.”

“You do feel it,” said Sgt. Roger Landry, who spent years investigating crimes against children.

The trick, the officers agreed, is to focus on the work and to never let pure emotion influence one’s actions.

Otherwise, said police Chief Brian O’Malley, “you’re not going to be effective as a police officer. You can’t let those emotions take over.”

The Wednesday night discussion was dubbed “Police Insider: True Blue.” It was part of the LYAC’s “Shine on Lewiston” program. According to LYAC Chair Emma Williams, the idea was to get “up close and personal” with veterans of the local police force.

They definitely achieved that. Fielding a handful of questions from the council, the cops provided a grim inside view of what it’s like to contend with the unpredictable nature of police work, where things can go from uneventful to terrifying in a matter of seconds.

“You see people at their worst,” O’Malley said.

But the meeting was not all gloom. Responding to the council’s questions, the officers provided as many light moments as they did dismal ones.

Asked to describe their most frightening call, Vierling went beyond the typical response of shoot-outs, car wrecks and bar fights. Around 15 years ago, he said, he was sent to deal with a suicidal man who was standing in the middle of the train trestle between Lewiston and Auburn, threatening to jump.

“I’m afraid of heights,” said Vierling, the department’s school resource officer. “Not only is that trestle high, but there’s no railing and it was wintertime. It was snowing and sleeting. I was scared to death.”

Vierling, in response to another question, also described responding to a domestic fight at which he found both husband and wife unhurt but covered head to toe in flour.

“Was that a rewarding call?” Vierling said. “Maybe not, but it was pretty damn funny.”

The officers agreed that it was hard to pinpoint one particular call they consider most rewarding. They also agreed that any crime or emergency involving children represents the most troubling.

Prodded by the youth advisory council, the cops talked about the effect their work has on their families — the long hours, the worked holidays and the frequently dark moods that follow difficult days on job.

“My daughter still reminds me that I missed her birthday party when she was 8 years old,” said O’Malley.

“I think my wife is looking forward to life after police work,” Vierling said. “If you don’t have your family’s support, you’re not going to make it.”

The youth advisory council asked about occasions where police officers are expected to go above and beyond the normal call of duty. The cops talked about volunteering for the Special Olympics and other programs, and about helping needy families when no one else would.

Vierling recalled buying diapers for a family who could not afford them. The officers cited another Lewiston cop who bought four new tires for a young mother who had been pulled over for an expired inspection sticker.

“There are a lot of things that we do individually,” Vierling said.

At the end of the Wednesday night meeting, the audience was invited to ask questions of their own. Instead of doing that, most took the opportunity to thank the officers.

One of them was an older woman who said she recently dialed 911 by mistake at 1 a.m. in the morning and was comforted by the speed with which police responded. Another was a home care nurse who said she always felt safe under the protection of local police even when working in sketchy neighborhoods.

Ultimately, according to LYAC Treasurer Zach Morin, the aim of the event was to enlighten the people of Lewiston about the men and women who patrol their streets.

“I’m really hoping they can walk away with a sense of who is protecting them every day,” Morin wrote in an LYAC handout, “and who they can call.”

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