They became Baltimore's newest police officers Friday evening, and were immediately challenged by their boss.
"You're a special class already," Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told the officers. "Your class ... will set the tone for the rest of the classes that come behind you."
The class began its training last spring as tensions over the death of Freddie Gray were growing. Gray, 25, died of injuries suffered in police custody. The riot on April 27 prompted much soul-searching and upheaval in both the Police Department and the city — Davis' predecessor was fired in its aftermath, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake opted not to run for re-election.
The police force, already under investigation by the Justice Department's civil rights division, has announced a partnership with the Johns Hopkins University in which the latest academic research will be applied to the officers' day-to-day operations.
The 28 members of the class who have joined the city department (three others are headed to the University of Maryland, Baltimore police force or the city sheriff's office) will be the first to test out a community-intensive model of policing: They will walk foot patrols exclusively for the first 90 days of their careers.
"You're going to encounter bad guys. But you're also going to encounter, more than anyone else, no matter where you're walking through the city, good people who want nothing more than to establish a relationship with you," Davis told them during a ceremony in an auditorium at the department's downtown headquarters.
Davis said Hopkins researchers will be measuring how community members feel about police now, and again after the foot-patrol initiative has been underway.
Even as Gray's death caused turmoil in the city, graduating class valedictorian Anthoney Taurisano said "not a single recruit" questioned the decision to become a police officer.
"Each day at formation, I saw the same faces that were there the day before," he said during the ceremony. "The bond that our class formed was incredible."
Rawlings-Blake encouraged the officers to ignore "the headlines" that criticize officers as a group and to remember to exercise judgment and empathy with a community that relies on their protection.
"These are challenging times for police officers," she said. "People of Baltimore place their sacred trust in your hands. And the responsibility to keep our city safe will be yours. But you will not be alone. ... We are in this fight together."
Several of the new officers interviewed after their graduation expressed excitement to be part of an effort to improve the often-fractured relationship with residents.
"I do know the situation we are in, the distance and separation between law enforcement and especially the younger generation," said Joshua Cornelius, 23, who grew up in Philadelphia. "I know how hard it is to bridge that gap."
He and his classmates had just started their training as turmoil in the streets grew over Gray's death. They watched as what had been largely peaceful demonstrations turned violent, with cars and buildings burned and officers pelted with rocks and other projectiles.
But none of them quit, and they said Friday that the experience had deepened their commitment.
"It made me want to be an officer even more," said Cornelius, who was given the commissioner's award of excellence.
The class bonded tightly over the experience, he said.
"Our instructors were so busy dealing with the riots, we as a class had to build friendships and a leadership structure," he said.
Nickolas Gouveia, 26, who finished the academy with the highest firearms rating, agreed.
Watching the department he was training to join deal with the rioting "was a little surreal," the Worcester, Mass., native said. But he added that the experience made him want to be even more "community-oriented and better engaged with the community."
Applications to the department had been declining. But they more than doubled in the four months after the unrest compared with the previous four months, spokeswoman Detective Nicole Monroe said. The department saw applications spike from 361 in January through April to 806 in May through August, she said.
Monroe said the number of applications usually trends more with the job market than the time of year.
"Studies have shown with us that when the economy is doing better, our applicants drop," she said. "When it is not doing so well, and the job market becomes more scarce, applicants pick up."
If the officers were not swayed from their chosen career by the riot, some family members admitted to fears on their behalf.
"It was a little nerve-racking, I was watching it [on TV] a little bit," said Kim Miller, 44, mother of graduate Casey McCauslin, 25. "But I have confidence in him. It's something he's wanted to do all his life."
Huy Dinh, 30, is one of nine new officers from Baltimore. The Loch Raven High School graduate had always wanted to be an officer — a desire that remained despite the riot.
"It's a little disheartening to see your city the way it was," Dinh said. But return to his previous and safer work, in automotive sales and mechanics? "It never crossed my mind."
After the ceremony, Davis said this class has been unique from its start, born during a wrenching time in the city's history. And now it will be in the vanguard of what he hopes is a change in policing — to the benefit of the city as a whole.
"When they started [at the academy] in a tumultuous time, they made an individual and collective decision to stay," the commissioner said. "I hope we will attract people who are service-oriented, and people who want to make a difference. That's where this profession needs to go."
NOTE: An earlier version of this story misstated when police officers who graduated Friday from the Baltimore Police Academy will begin duty. They began service immediately upon graduation. The Sun regrets the error.
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.