Officers of the Baltimore Police Department's Northern District haven't been going hungry during Baltimore's unrest.
"Let me show you something," Capt. Richard Gibson said, walking into a conference and community meeting room at the Northern District headquarters last Thursday evening.
Tables were piled high with food, all donated by the community, from fruits and vegetables to sandwich platters and several large aluminum trays of baked ziti. The ziti came with a note of support from former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and his wife, Katie, who now live in Homeland.
A pile of thank-you notes also lay on the table, handwritten by seniors at Roland Park Place.
Gibson shook his head in amazement.
"This is minimal compared to what we've had for three days," Gibson said. He said people were coming with donations from as far away as Baltimore County.
And when officers went to a B.J.'s Wholesale Club store on Belair Road to get coolers for all the donated food, they came away with a $250 gift certificate that store officials gave them on the spot.
"Thank you. God bless," Gibson told a man who would not give his name as he drove up in his car with bags of ice, then drove away.
"You can't make this stuff up," Gibson said.
In a city hungry for peace and better police-community relations, North Baltimoreans and Northern District police have leaned on each other for support in the days since Freddie Gray, 25, died after being in police custody, prompting riots and looting as far north as the Staples store near Belvedere Square on York Road. Six police officers now face charges ranging from second-degree murder to manslaughter. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Sunday lifted a weeklong curfew sooner than expected in the wake of the riots.
Gibson, who earned a master's degree in public executive leadership from Johns Hopkins University, started in the Northern District as a rookie from 1997 to 1999 and came back as a lieutenantbriefly in 2008, before becoming a shift commander in the homicide division. Now, he has come full circle and is five months on the job as executive officer, or second in command at the Northern District.
He is still introducing himself in the community. But he has stood with residents at several area rallies and emailed them with updates at every opportunity, even as he and the district's new commander, Major Robert Smith, have been pulled away to Mondawmin Mall and other hot spots in the city, working 16-hour days in the process.
"Sometimes, I'm here, sometimes there, wherever there's a hot flash," Gibson said. But wherever he is, "I try to write every day, just to give (residents) an update on what's going on. They're only watching what's on television. I can give them an update from the front lines."
Gibson said Smith, who could not be reached for comment, came to the Northern District from the Western District, and volunteered to oversee the Western District during the crisis. For much of the past week, Gibson, 45, of Owings Mills and Bill Miller, 75, of Roland Springs, president of the Northern District Community Council, an active citizens' advisory group, have been the faces of the Northern District.
Gibson, who is married and has children, made it to simultaneous marches in Waverly and Govans that he and Miller helped organize with Greater Homewood Community Corp., York Road Partnership, Waverly Main Street and Loyola University Maryland's York Road Initiative, among other groups.
Gibson and Miller, who said they have become good friends, first joined hundreds of marchers in Waverly. The march was led by City Councilman Mary Pat Clarke, Charles Village Civic Association President Sandy Sparks and several others, who held a banner that said, "Northern District: Where Community + Police = Community Policing."
Then, Gibson and Miller joined the march up York Road, although Gibson's stay was shorter than he would have liked.
"This is terrific," Gibson said, watching as an estimated 200 residents crowded onto every curb and median in the intersection, carrying signs like, "Honk for Peace."
But he couldn't stay for long. Halfway through that march, he said he was being redeployed to Pennsylvania and North avenues for the evening.
It's been that way since Monday, April 27, when simmering tensions boiled over into protests and riots, and all police department command officers were reassigned to Mondawmin Mall and other trouble spots, Gibson said.
"I just grabbed my riot helmet and ran over," taking a team of about 20 officers with him, he said. Many people threw rocks and other items at police, and Gibson showed a brass coupling for a hose that he said hit him in the face.
"I was hoping I wouldn't see anything like this," said Miller, who remembers the 1968 riots in the city. But he wasn't surprised that Gray's death sparked animosity, similar to recent events in Ferguson, Mo., given the racial and socioeconomic tensions that exist in Baltimore.
"We were one day away from a Ferguson if something sparked — and something sparked," Miller said.
Through it all, Gibson has tried to keep the spirit of community policing alive and the lines of communications open with residents and business owners on struggling corridors such as York Road and Greenmount Avenue. He stressed that during the curfew, his officers made no arrests, instead asking people to get off the streets after the curfew started at 10 p.m.
"We're not going to arrest them," he said.
But he also noted that officers arrested people believed to have been involved in the looting of five of 12 stores in the district, mostly on Greenmount and York.
"We're going to stay in the fight and we're going to protect the citizens of North Baltimore," he said. "We want to stabilize the community."
Residents and business owners are taking notice of Gibson's outreach efforts.
"Capt. Gibson has been a blessing to Northern District," said Joe Stewart, a board member of the Better Waverly Community Organization.
Gibson "has demonstrated an ability to stay in touch with the many communities in our district," Stewart said. He said Gibson is easy to talk to, responds quickly to messages and sends regular crime and safety updates that the board can circulate to a wider audience. Gibson also regularly attends monthly safety meetings organized by the Charles Village Community Benefits District, which Stewart attends, and has worked closely with the Northern District Community Council to implement more community policing initiatives, Stewart said.
Sandi McFadden, secretary to the Mid-Govans Community Association, is a big fan of Gibson and said that in her 20 years in the neighborhood, "I have never seen that kind of outreach in the community."
"I think he has a very high focus on community policing," McFadden said. "It was very impressive that he himself walked in two peace rallies, to heighten understanding between police and the community, which is a very challenging thing. I think he takes it very seriously and I think he takes it very personally. I think he really wants to see community policing work."
The outreach has not been set back by the furor over Gray's death, Gibson and Miller said.
"It has strengthened bonds and brought out some people who weren't active," Miller said. "I've been called by ministers I had never heard from."
On Thursday evening, during a ride-along in an unmarked police car, Gibson drove up York Road to talk to employees at a Cricket phone store that was looted April 27, and stopped at a T-Mobile store on Greenmount Avenue that also was hit. The windows on either side of the front door were still boarded.
Gibson has struck up a relationship with T-Mobile employees, especially sales associate Tre Welcher, 31, who lives in Pen Lucy. They met during riots at Pennsylvania and North Avenue, and exchanged phone numbers and Facebook information, after learning they both had connections to North Baltimore.
"I try to tell my peers, not all black people are bad and not all police officers are racist," Welcher said. "I want to do the best I can to influence change and be that change."
"We've just got to work together," Gibson said. "I know it's the right thing to say, but it's the truth."