Eight-year-old Lasondra Calvert led the other members of the Baltimore Police Athletic League Youth Choir into the fountain area of Mondawmin Mall.
A freckle-faced girl with round cheeks, she tugged on the sleeve of Officer Roderick O. Dotson to get his attention. Dotson "discovered" Lasondra, a Catonsville resident who's a big fan of pop singer Britney Spears, after he heard her sing at a New Year's party.
"My mother's here," she said, and beamed at him.
Dotson, 44, has led the choir since it began five years ago, helping about 200 children who have passed through the program.
Like the sports-oriented, academic and social programs offered by the Police Athletic League, its goal is to promote academic achievement and self-esteem among children.
Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier started the choir after hearing at a seminar about an all-boys gospel group that police in Memphis, Tenn., began as a positive activity for children.
"The Memphis police chief talked about his boys' gospel choir, and I started thinking, 'Why does it need to be just boys, and why can't the range of music be more broad?' " said Frazier, who now oversees a community policing initiative for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington.
"They're a wonderful representation of how the Baltimore police can be a part of the social fabric of the city," he said of the choir.
Donations and a foundation fund two vans, uniforms and travel for its 45 members, ages 8 to 18. The choir's budget is about $25,000 a year, Dotson said.
Parents and children vouch for the program's success.
"They take children from all walks of life," said Laura Williams of Northeast Baltimore, whose 14-year-old daughter is a member of the choir. "The kids really look out for each other and comfort each other. They mess with each other, but they don't let anyone else mess with them."
Her daughter Brittani Gaskins decided to join after she heard the group perform four years ago.
"I thought, 'They sound good. I don't want to stay home and do nothing,' " Brittani said. "They inspired me."
Camden Yards, Yaphet Kotto
The choir has taken its act around Maryland, to North Carolina and to Pennsylvania. It sang the national anthem at an Orioles game at Camden Yards in 1998, and performed at the wedding of actor Yaphet Kotto, who played Lt. Al Giardello in the television series "Homicide: Life on the Street." Some choir members sang backup for country music star Shania Twain at the Baltimore Arena in December 1998.
"The choir gives kids a chance to experience things they've never had a chance to do before," said Kenise Hart, 17, of East Baltimore. She has been a member of the choir since its inception, and estimates that she's performed 200 times.
On the weekend before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the children donned black gowns that fell almost to their scuffed sneakers and boots. The choir lined up in the middle of Mondawmin Mall and prepared to sing two gospel selections from its repertoire, which ranges from country to rhythm and blues to jazz.
Most of the 27 children vied for Dotson's attention. He circulated among them and their families, offering hugs, handshakes and hellos.
The scene came to life with loud voices, synchronized stomps and claps. A crowd gathered by the stage, and shoppers lined second-floor railings to watch.
Not all the children have singing experience, but Dotson says he'll teach any child to sing.
"To teach them to sing, we have to motivate their self-esteem," Dotson said. "They have to believe in themselves."
Dotson has been a Baltimore police officer for 20 years and served in the Marines for three years, but he's a musician at heart. He grew up on Greenmount Avenue in East Baltimore and started singing in high school.
He released a gospel record in 1991 under the name "Sir Rod," and has toured the East Coast and Midwest. He is working on another recording, he said.
For Dotson, it's not just about the music. He reviews the children's report cards and holds study groups two Saturday afternoons a month at police headquarters. He also watches a movie with them after each study session. His children, ages 11, 13 and 14, also are choir members.
After the Mondawmin performance, he asked whether any of the children needed a ride home. A few raised their hands.
Dotson handed the keys to the van to 13-year-old Jose Guilarte so he could start loading choir robes. He smiled at the boy, gently reminding him not to lock the keys in the van.
Dotson's full-time job with the Baltimore police is devoted to the choir and giving speeches in the community.
Dotson said he believes the choir will continue, although new Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel has said he intends to restructure the Police Athletic League to put more officers on the streets.
"He's such a wonderful man," Brittani Gaskins said of Dotson. "He takes so much time to be with us."
Dotson shrugs off the praise that children and their families shower on him.
"It feels good because the choir is being part of a team," he said. "It takes a lot for everyone involved, but we all work together."