TORRINGTON – On a sunny morning in chilly mid-November, officers from the Torrington Police Department go about their jobs.
TPD Chief Matt Johnson works from his office and gets ready to stop by local businesses, leading the charge in keeping Torrington safe and making connections with the community.
In a school gym, officer Matt Maestas plays dodgeball with the kids during their P.E. class, making connections with Torrington’s younger generation.
Back at the station, Sgt. Joel Sandlian goes back and forth between his administrative duties and answering questions for newer officers, ensuring the day-to-day operations at the station run smoothly and everything is done properly.
Down the hall from Sandlian, Detective Rebecca Morris reviews her caseload for the day, a popular podcast playing in the background to keep her company.
At one point during the day, Communications Supervisor Bailye Geller and Communications Officer Lacey Ochoa switch off shifts in the dispatch center. Geller and Ochoa are only two of several dispatchers, taking both emergency and non-emergency calls for all four law enforcement agencies, all nine fire departments and all five EMS agencies in Goshen County. Torrington’s dispatchers often work one at a time, handling the entire dispatch process alone.
The story of how each one of them ended up here is unique, but their reasons for staying are similar.
“My favorite part of my day is getting out into the community and connecting and contacting various types of people,” Maestas said. “What I really, really like to do is hit up the schools…I think it’s important that kids know that we’re not just scary people.”
Maestas has made many new friends through the schools, including Jaxton, a young Torrington boy recently featured on TPD’s Facebook page after dropping off some extra treats he had ordered for the department in a school fundraiser.
It isn’t all fun and games, though. Police work involves being with people on some of the worst days of their lives. Working with victims to take statements, collect evidence and other interactions can be a heavy load to bear. Confrontations in potentially dangerous situations can take its toll both physically and mentally. Despite the heartbreak, Johnson sees the price as being worth the sense of purpose and fulfillment that comes with it.
“From the first minute when I signed on the dotted line,” Johnson said. “I knew it mattered. I knew that what I do touches the lives of people every single day that I do it, and sometimes that hurts terribly and sometimes it feels like million bucks…I’m dealing with the hardest, toughest, most heartbreaking and yet somehow most rewarding things that matter in our world.”
Johnson wasn’t always in law enforcement. Like many people, it took a few career changes for him to find the thing he really loved. After starting out in agriculture and loving the work outdoors, he found himself behind a desk in the insurance business. How he got there, he says, was “a little bit against [his] will.”
While he didn’t particularly care for pushing papers, he did like helping people. Law enforcement was a “happy medium” for him.
Morris, on the other hand, knew exactly what she wanted to do ever since she was a child.
“My dad’s best friend was a cop,” she said. “And when he’d come over in his uniform, I was just like ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool! This is what I want to do.’”
After earning her degree in criminal justice, she went to work. After working with inmates at the prison and parolees, she decided it was time to switch things up.
“I needed a change,” she said. “So, I applied for the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department, and I was there for four years and then was coming back home.”
After being at TPD for 18 months, Morris made detective in early Spring of this year.
Sandlian decided it was time to change careers in 2015 after working in a lumber yard for 13 years. Previously, Sandlian had earned a degree in criminal justice from Torrington’s own Eastern Wyoming College.
“I stressed about going into the academy and leaving the family for three months, only seeing them on the weekends,” he said. “But once that was over that was probably the moment I decided this was going to be a career and not just a job.”
After getting into law enforcement, many young officers are hit with the weight of the job, a job weighed down by the sorrows of victims and the constant effort to ensure residents’ safety.
“We never talk to people on a good day,” Morris said. “We’re always making somebody mad whenever we show up somewhere.”
Morris said these situations can make law enforcement often feel like a “thankless” job, and she’s not alone in feeling the weight of the job.
“There are days that seem a lot tougher than others,” Johnson said. “But every single person in this agency changes the life of somebody every day that they do, and you deal with people during the hardest, most painful times of their life and we have the opportunity to help.”
Communities across the world depend on local law enforcement to keep them safe and to ensure justice goes forward. While the debate of police brutality and reform in America rages on, there are bright spots of success for TPD and healing for victims and their families.
On Nov. 19, Sean Pettus was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Madison Cook. As the primary investigator on the case, Morris counts this as a victory.
“When I watched him walk out, I started getting teary-eyed like ‘Yes! It’s over.’...Justice was served, and the family can start healing.”
Not every day is an episode of “Law and Order” though. Preventing crime can be just as fulfilling as solving it.
“There was a moment with a young lady,” Maestas remembers. “She was in a pretty bad domestic violence relationship and she finally got the resources, and it took a lot of time. Just constantly talking with her and checking on her and showing her that she has the ability to separate [herself], and there was one day where she actually finally came in here after she went to a court and she applied for a protection order and separated herself. That was really rewarding in itself.”
Whether the day goes good or bad, they all continue to show up day after day.
“In the start, it was actually kind of rough,” Ochoa said. “I had applied for every open dispatch position for two years. So, I tried really hard to get there because, I don’t know, I just felt called to it. So, when I finally got the job, I didn’t really understand what it was until I started doing it.”
Ochoa remembers her first days in the dispatch center as rough but rewarding. Ultimately, those first few weeks set her up with a sense of purpose and fulfillment she couldn’t find anywhere else.
“It’s not even so much of a want [to do this job], but I feel like I need to. I feel like I need to be there for the community all the time.”
Sandlian sees the variety and chance to do something different every day as one of the greatest benefits to the job.
“I enjoy all of it,” he said. “One day is not going to be the same as the next day. It’s going to be totally different.”
Maestas particularly enjoys being a role model for kids in the community.
“We’re somebody that they can go and talk to when they need help,” he said. “I think it’s important for them to know there’s a resource outside of another resource in the community that they can look to for counseling, for help.”
Connection with coworkers makes an often-critical difference in any workplace but being able to rely on fellow law enforcement officers has turned the Torrington Police Department from a workplace to a family.
“Those are my people,” Ochoa said about her coworkers. “Each one of them brings something to the table.”
Morris enjoys coming in first thing in the morning, pouring herself a cup of coffee and sitting with “the guys.”
“Just sitting around and being a normal crew for a little bit,” she said.
Geller agrees the sense of family is nice, and she looks forward to interacting with her coworkers every day.
“The people that I work with here are all super great. It’s nice knowing that we can work as a team and get stuff taken care of,” she said.
Each of the officers works in 12-hour shifts, ensuring 24-hour coverage for the department. A sense of camaraderie is present at each briefing, coffee break and at desks.
“We are a group of people who care deeply about this community and about the problems that we try to help solve every day,” Johnson said. “We’re human and we’re not perfect, but we try to treat people with fairness, and we’re committed to being accountable.”