BIDDEFORD — Officer Liz Coleman tries to ease her children’s fears whenever she slips into her uniform and heads to work, but it’s not always easy.

When they hear stories of police officers killed on the job, Coleman’s three children worry that their mom is in danger.

“They’ll ask me if I have to go to work. I’ll get extra texts from them,” said Coleman, who has been a police officer in Biddeford for 28 years. “I remind them that I’m smart and well-trained. I remind them that I’ll be home tonight.”

It’s a conversation police officers across Maine are having with their families in the wake of ambushes in Dallas and Baton Rouge that killed a total of eight officers. The killings of the police officers were apparently carried out by people who nursed grievances against the police over police brutality, especially against minorities.

Police officers have also found themselves at the nexus of growing tension over race relations in the U.S. that has spilled into the streets with protests – sometimes violent – over recent fatal shootings of African-Americans by police in places such as Louisiana and Minnesota.

While police actions have been the subject of many of the protests, law enforcement officials say they still have a duty to protect their communities, even as they process the emotions surrounding both the danger to themselves and the criticism they face.

Saco Police Chief Brad Paul says police officers are always cautious doing their jobs – but have to be even more so now.

“We’re acutely aware of the danger out there, but we try not to let it affect our policing,” said Paul, who noted that an average of 144 police officers are killed in the line of duty in the United States each year.

In many departments, chiefs and other top officers have been engaging in conversations about staying safe and positive on the job.

“It’s the most difficult period of time for police officers I recall in my 29 years as one of them,” Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett wrote this week on Facebook. “They, like you and I, struggle to understand or make sense of recent events and they need and deserve our support more than ever.”

Officers in Maine say they rely on their training to ease anxiety about the risks they face and that community support in the wake of the shootings has reaffirmed their commitment to serve.

Here, those in the law enforcement community – and one who aspires to join – describe how they deal with the pressure and why they still put on their uniforms each day.

• • • • •

Officer John Gill

Scarborough Police Department

Scarborough Patrol Officer John Gill counts on 35 years of law enforcement experience and training to help keep him and others safe.

“Being a police officer always had an element of risk,” said Gill, 55. “Our awareness of that has been sharpened in recent weeks. We do things on a daily basis that we think are keeping us safe. I’m sure the officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge thought the same thing.”

Officer John Gill Scarborough Police Department

Officer John Gill, Scarborough Police Department

Gill, who is married and has two grown children, has been a patrol officer in Scarborough for 13 years, and in Saco for 1½ years before that. It’s his second career in law enforcement, following 20 years as a special investigator in the Air Force.

With all that time on the job, Gill is no stranger to the heart-pounding adrenaline that flows during encounters with violent criminals. In 2012, Gill joined a team of U.S. marshals that was hunting a fugitive in Portland. When the cornered felon opened fire, members of the team fired back and Gill dove to the ground. Other members of the team thought Gill was dead, but he was unharmed.

“It can happen to anyone, but it’s not something you think about all the time,” Gill said. “The reality of it is, if we let it get in our heads and change the way we do business, we’re putting ourselves and potentially someone else in danger.”

Even being a cop in a bucolic seaside suburb of Portland doesn’t make Gill feel he can let down his guard or feel safer than officers in big cities. All kinds of people come to Maine, especially during tourist season. And social media and 24-hour news about police-involved shootings have increased tensions everywhere in everyday encounters with the public, regardless of state, county or municipal borders.

“Those barriers or boundaries really aren’t there,” Gill said.

• • • • •

Cpl. Ted Gagnon

Saco Police Department

At the beginning of each shift, Saco police officers pass around a bag of black bands to slip over their badges in honor of fallen police officers. It’s a somber moment and one that stays with Cpl. Ted Gagnon when he’s on patrol.

“You look in the mirror and see that band and you are reminded there are people out there who wish us ill will,” Gagnon said.

Cpl. Ted Gagnon checks in with Saco Police Department dispatch during a traffic stop last week in Saco. Gagnon, 28, studied medical sciences in college but fell in love with the connections he made in the community as an officer of the law. Those connections are what keep him in uniform, Gagnon said.

Cpl. Ted Gagnon, Saco Police Department Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gagnon, 28, has been a police officer for five years. After considering a career in medicine, he fell in love with the connections he made in the community as a police officer. Those connections – shooting hoops with kids or chatting with seniors – are what keep him in uniform, even as officers are second-guessed and targeted, he said.

He tries not to focus on the what-ifs, relying instead on his training and commitment to serve the citizens of Saco. At home, he and his fiancee talk about police shootings and he reminds himself the risk is worth it. Gagnon, the son of a police officer, said he always has been well aware of that risk and how it could affect his family.

“Growing up, the last thing we’d always say (before leaving) was ‘I love you,’ ” he said. “That’s still the last thing I say every day when I leave for work.”

In the past two weeks, the police department has been flooded with support from the community. Residents have dropped off baked goods, offered to buy officers lunch and shouted encouraging words as they pass officers on patrol. All of that reaffirms Gagnon’s decision to stay in law enforcement.

“You’re that much more careful at work. You watch people that much more closely,” Gagnon said. “When you get home, you hug your family a little closer.”

• • • • •

Officer Michael Pierce

Yarmouth Police Department

Michael Pierce, 33, a patrol officer for the Yarmouth Police Department, said he hasn’t felt as safe as he used to since the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago after a police officer there fatally shot an 18-year-old black man. Pierce said he is now “hypervigilant” when he responds to calls. He’s used to being on guard during a traffic stop, but now worries about situations like responding to noise complaints.

“Those are the calls that make me nervous, honestly,” Pierce said. “Every call, you are wondering, is it some mundane call that will lure me into letting my guard down and expose me to an ambush?”

Growing up, Pierce looked up to police officers and wanted to join what he saw as an admirable profession. When he started his first job in Virginia, he was surprised to learn some people didn’t trust or like the police.

“There was a little bit of a culture shock in that regard,” he said.

Pierce’s children are too young to know what is going on, and even though his wife is supportive of his career, she’d be happier and less worried if he had a 9-to-5 job, he said. He’s even thought about leaving policing altogether.

Media coverage of police shootings can be misleading, and is an indication of the gap in understanding between police and the public, he added.

“I think a lot of what people see creates shock and awe,” he said, referring to cellphone videos showing police-involved shootings. “Unless you know the entire situation, that 10 seconds doesn’t tell the whole story. I think they don’t necessarily understand what it is like to make a life-and-death decision in a split second.”

• • • • •

Officer Andrew Shortill

Biddeford Police Department

After 10 years on the job with the Biddeford Police Department, Officer Andrew Shortill finds himself in “a very interesting place” when he watches news reports of fellow officers being gunned down on the job.

“The gut reaction is to question if it’s worth the risk to me and my family. It’s a hard and heavy burden to bear, knowing there is a target on me just for going to work,” he said. “That burden quickly dissolves into resolution to continue to do the things I do to the best of my ability.”

Shortill, 32, says being a police officer was the only job he ever wanted. He joined the force knowing it was his job “to stand between the chaos and order” and hold criminals accountable. Those are responsibilities he remains committed to, even as his wife and father worry about him.

Officer Andrew Shortill Biddeford Police Department

Officer Andrew Shortill, Biddeford Police Department

“My wife tells me every day when I leave to be safe,” he said. “My dad tells me every time we talk to watch my back.”

Shortill, who spends most of his time on foot patrol in downtown Biddeford, said there are times he worries because he is alone and other officers may not know exactly where he is if something goes wrong. He said his fellow officers now make a point to drive by and check on his location more often.

“I can be as aware of my surroundings as possible, but I can’t control what other people are doing,” he said.

In the last two weeks, Shortill said he has felt even more support from a community that has long supported its officers. After the shootings in Dallas, someone left flowers outside the police station. Others dropped off food and cards.

“What’s going on currently has prompted more people to make an effort to express their appreciation,” he said. “It reinforces why I’m here.”

• • • • •

Officers Erin & Jeff Warren

South Portland Police Department

When Erin and Jeff Warren start work each afternoon, they exchange the same parting words: “I love you. Be safe.”

That hasn’t changed for the newlyweds, both officers in the South Portland Police Department.

“I always say that, but now it has more meaning,” said Erin Warren, 30, a nine-year veteran of the force who recently transitioned from patrol officer to community response officer, focusing on community-related investigations and outreach.

While violence and safety concerns have always been an aspect of policing, she said, recent events have reminded her that she must always be vigilant in anticipating threats and adhere to her training without sacrificing her professionalism and compassion.

“You don’t want to be complacent and you don’t want to let it affect your work,” she said. “I do my best to treat everybody as human beings and I wouldn’t want to change that.”

Erin Warren said she’s gotten used to being videotaped by members of the public during arrests and other interactions, in addition to being recorded by dashboard cameras in cruisers and audio microphones that officers wear. But she’s unnerved by the rush to judgment in incidents captured on video before the cases are fully investigated.

“Everything now is trial by social media,” she said. “I feel police are guilty until proven innocent.”

Jeff Warren said the recent ambush killings of police officers have validated his fundamental training to be constantly aware of his surroundings. Warren, 31, has been a patrol officer in South Portland for four years.

“Nothing has changed for me,” he said. “It’s a reminder that we always have to be on alert. Not defensive, but prepared.”

That means parking his cruiser in a safe place to write up reports, calling for backup when necessary and avoiding other common threats that come with being a police officer.

“We have to trust society,” Jeff Warren said. “We have to trust that 99 percent of people are going to do the right thing and not hurt us, but unfortunately there are some people who want to hurt us.”

Despite the dangers he faces, Jeff Warren said he gets tremendous satisfaction from being a police officer, especially when he’s able to assist, support and bring justice to crime victims.

“Those are the times when the job is really rewarding,” he said.

• • • • •

Officer Ben Davis

Cape Elizabeth Police Department

Cape Elizabeth Patrol Officer Ben Davis has wanted to be a police officer since he was a kid, and recent police-involved shootings in other states haven’t dampened his enthusiasm.

“I love that you don’t know what call you’re gonna get,” said Davis, 27. “I can’t imagine going into work, sitting at a desk and doing the same thing every day. That’s just not me.”

Davis, who is single, has an associate degree in criminal justice from Southern Maine Community College and a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Southern Maine, and he completed his training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

As for concerns about the dangers he might encounter on one of those random calls, Davis tries not to think about it.

“You don’t want it to affect the way you do your job,” Davis said. “In Maine, police officers are pretty well trained. You rely on your training. If you start thinking about what-ifs, you’re going to go down the wrong path.”

While there always will be people who don’t like or trust police officers, Davis said, he and other officers have been heartened by demonstrations of community support in recent weeks. The lunchroom table at the police station is overflowing with treats dropped off by townspeople. One resident stopped an officer in a convenience store last week and said, “Thank you for doing what you do.”

“In light of recent events, it feels good knowing the community appreciates us,” Davis said. “You just go out and do your best every day. A lot of people don’t interact with police regularly, so if you can make sure it’s a positive experience, hopefully they’ll remember that.”

• • • • •

Officer Dennis Ryder

Falmouth Police Department

Dennis Ryder, who has been a police officer in Maine for 29 years, felt more vulnerable after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks than he has after the recent attacks on police.

“I’m always aware of my surroundings and try to keep on my toes. I can’t say that has changed because of recent events,” said Ryder, a Falmouth police officer.

Still, the national conversation about race and policing has affected him. In the past week, he pulled over two African-American drivers for traffic violations and sensed an unusual degree of wariness and mistrust from them.

“I kind of get the vibe that they are very concerned with dealing with a white cop,” Ryder, 52, said. “I think it’s a shame. When I stop a car I don’t have a clue whether a person is white or black and nor do I care. I am stopping them for a violation.”

At home, he’s talked to his children, ages 12 and 16, about the news of police shootings.

“Some of the questions I can’t answer,” he said. “I can’t answer why the black person got shot by a police officer. I don’t know what was going through the officer’s mind, or the victim’s.”

At the end of the day, though, Ryder feels grateful he lives in Maine, where the crime rate is low, and that he works in a quiet town. That’s what he tells his family when they ask about his safety.

“I try to reassure them. We live in Maine. It is pretty peaceful, quiet,” Ryder said.

• • • • •

Osman Bashir

prospective police officer

Outside the Windham Police Department, where Osman Bashir was taking the ALERT test, a state police entrance examination, the 25-year-old said he is hopeful about his prospects of becoming a police officer.

He said that despite the attacks on police around the country, he is still energized by the thought of helping his neighbors in Lewiston, where he and his family live.

His experience with American police has been inspiring, he said, especially compared to the Kenyan military police he dealt with growing up. Bashir fled Somalia as a child and grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya, where he encountered a different kind of policing.

“They’re more strict, military-wise, and the work they did wasn’t very sophisticated,” Bashir said. “It was mostly brutality.”

By contrast, his run-ins with police in Lewiston and Auburn have been positive experiences, and Bashir envisions himself as a potential force for good as a police officer who speaks Arabic.

“There are good people and there are bad people,” he said. “In every department you have bad police and good officers.”

His mother is not so sure. She has discouraged Bashir from pursuing a law enforcement career, saying it is dangerous and that he would be singled out for his nationality.

“She says, ‘You’re Somali and you’ll be targeted within your own department,’ ” Bashir said. “She’s not happy with it but I’m standing on the point. I want to make people’s lives different.”

His friends rib him for the choice of careers, too, and are blunt about the risks, asking him, “What if you get shot?”

“If I have to die in the line of duty, so be it,” he said.

• • • • •

Officer Liz Coleman

Biddeford Police Department

Liz Coleman, the Biddeford police officer, joined the department in 1989 at a time when many people didn’t trust police officers, she said.

“Back then, we were ‘pigs,’ ” she said. “I don’t hear that a lot these days.”

Officer Liz Coleman, 53, a former patrol officer and long-time detective, now serves as a school resource officer with the Biddeford Police Department, a post she requested. A single mom with two daughters and a son, she says she relishes the connections she makes with young people as part of her job.

Officer Liz Coleman, Biddeford Police Department Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

During her career, Coleman, 53, has served in a variety of roles, including six years as a patrol officer and 17 years as a detective. She is now a school resource officer at Biddeford Middle School, a job she requested specifically so she could work with kids. A single mom to two daughters and a son, she relishes the connections she makes with young people.

It is the kids, she said, who seem to have the most respect for police officers these days, even when their parents or relatives have had trouble with the law. Despite those positive interactions, Coleman is acutely aware that many people are distrustful of all police officers.

“It’s been really rough for a lot of us. It’s disheartening to see what people think of us,” she said. “The lack of sympathy is overwhelming to me. It makes me reevaluate if it’s worth it.”

Last week, she spent an afternoon walking to a free outdoor concert with some local kids, then connecting other young teens with an arts nonprofit where she thought they’d enjoy taking classes. As she’s out and about in the city, Coleman said people thank her for her service to Biddeford. Those interactions help sustain her commitment to the job.

“A guy last week asked if he could hug me. It’s comforting to know that people in our community value what we do here,” she said. “We’re here and we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to continue to serve with integrity and honor.”

Staff Writers Kelley Bouchard, Matt Byrne and Peter McGuire contributed to this report.