Mayor calls officer's death 'tragedy that shook us to our deepest core'

After hard nights spent locking up drug dealers and helping others through their problems, Baltimore police Officer William H. Torbit Jr. often turned to Lonnie Davis for counsel.

Davis, the pastor of the Church of Hope in Odenton, and Torbit would sit into the wee hours, talking about whether hope exists. Both grew up in the city. "He and I could relate to the darkness and the light," Davis said, speaking at the slain officer's funeral Wednesday.

The eight-year veteran drug officer chose to see the light, Davis explained: "He found love — even on the streets of Baltimore."

Mourners who packed the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and lined up to eulogize Torbit in a Baptist service that stretched nearly three hours told similar stories of "a tough-as-nails cop" who, after hours, returned to the streets he patrolled to mentor children and help those had earlier put in handcuffs.

"He knew that to make this city safer, he had to help the kids," said Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. "He believed in them."

Torbit, a 33-year-old plainclothes officer, was shot and killed Jan. 9 by four fellow officers who mistook him for a gunman while trying to quell a disturbance outside a nightclub on North Paca Street near downtown.

Police said four officers fired on Torbit as he lay on his back fatally shooting another man who had been assaulting him. Three bystanders were wounded in a fusillade of 41 police bullets. At Wednesday's service, few talked about how Torbit died or the investigations that are under way; the four officers who opened fire on their colleague were not seen at the funeral.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called the shooting a "great tragedy that shook us to our deepest core." She told grieving relatives, including the officer's mother and eight siblings, and the more than 100 officers in attendance that the city owed them the truth about what happened.

"We owe you a great debt," the mayor said. "He wasn't just a cop. He was a cop who cared."

Torbit worked the drug beat on one of Baltimore's busiest corridors — Pennsylvania Avenue — but was so well-respected that even the suspected criminals he confronted praised him for being fair. Before the funeral service, police escorted the hearse up the avenue along which Torbit had worked to restore order.

"I had to pay my respects," said 22-year-old Kevin Brooks, who told how Torbit caught him inside a drug house during a raid — but instead of arresting him, got him help. "He was most loved around here. He got people out of trials and tribulations."

From Pennsylvania Avenue, the procession made its way to North Baltimore and to the cavernous cathedral on North Charles Street — chosen by Torbit's congregation at West Baltimore's Southern Friendship Baptist Church because of its size and stature.

Police officers from as far away as New Jersey paid their respects and joined Torbit's family and preachers in an applause-laden celebration of life complete with gospel music — with a rousing rendition of "Lift Him Up" peformed by two choirs.

"We are all one," proclaimed the auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, Denis J. Madden, speaking not just of the temporary union of congregations but of a city that lost one of its protectors. Torbit, he said, "praised the name of the Lord with his service to the community. … He gave the ultimate offering."

Outside, hundreds of police vehicles formed a double-wide funeral procession that stretched down Charles Street from Northern Parkway to Cold Spring Lane. At the family's request, Torbit's body was placed on the back of a horse-drawn carriage and escorted by police cars to the front of the church.

The cathedral was filled to its 1,400-seat capacity.

Bealefeld talked about Torbit's love for the city and his willingness to listen to others, telling fellow officers that they can learn from their fallen colleague how to be better police and better men. He read from Torbit's last evaluation, in which his sergeant wrote that there "wasn't another officer I know of who is more knowledgeable about the people and the streets he's assigned."

Tributes came from all corners. Torbit's brother, Donte, recalled bumping into a man recently. "Your brother locked me up," the man told him. "My brother locked you up?" Donte answered. "Yeah," the man responded, "Your brother locked me up, but he helped me."

Relatives also recalled how, when his father, William, became ill, Torbit took over the family. He had six sisters and two brothers, and while he wasn't the oldest child, he was the oldest male. "This is my family," they recalled him saying with convictioin.

The pastor and close relatives credited Torbit with helping his mother, Delores, raise the family, all while graduating from a public city high school and taking on jobs as varied as a cook at Phillips Harborplace and stocking shelves at a Sam's Club.

Torbit may have loved the city and the police force, which he joined in 2002, but above all, his brothers and sisters said, he "loved the Lord." His grandfather was a minister and his uncle is pastor of Southern Friendship Baptist on West Cross Street, and the people who knew him said church and life were inseparable.

The officer frequently told troubled friends the same thing he told the people he arrested: "Talk to me." He ended conversations with, "See you later." Summed up his best friend, Sean Rideout, "Whatever problem you had, Wil made it his problem."

Lt. Charles Clayton, who served with Torbit in the Central District, fought back tears, and in his dress-blue uniform struggled to stand at attention as he recalled his friend and colleague.

He called Torbit a "hero to many" and turned to the officer's family and relatives who filled more than a dozen rows of the church, thanking them for opening their home to him and other officers and for embracing the police family as their own.

"Thank you for sharing Wil with us," Clayton said, standing over the flag-draped coffin. "As a police officer, our primary goal is to make it home at the end of the night. It's 10 days later. It's time to take Wil home."

The police officers in the church stood and applauded.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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