They gathered at the rowhouse where Marty Ward was shot, to pay respects to the Baltimore police detective slain 25 years ago while posing as a heroin dealer, to rename a still-desolate stretch of Frederick Avenue in his honor, to remember one of the first casualties in what was then the start of the war on drugs.
When the speeches and accolades were over, federal drug agent Kevin Donnelly, the leader of the Black and Gold Pipes and Drums, dressed in a towering black feather bonnet, tunic and kilt, stood at the podium. In thick Irish brogue, he reminded everyone the war is far from over.
"If the Lord takes me before he takes you," Donnelly told the officers standing at attention, remind the enemy that others "will continue to stand the line."
His battle-weary words gave way to the sorrowful sounds of bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace" as Thursday's ceremony came to a tearful end. Police officers posed for pictures in front of 1829 Frederick Ave., a vacant shell with its front window draped in black bunting, another boarded-up house on a street riddled with empty, sagging homes, overgrown lots and crime.
The shooting of 36-year-old Marcellus Ward, a 13-year city police veteran assigned to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force, still haunts the department. No other undercover detective has been killed negotiating a drug buy in Baltimore, and the shooting changed the way the drug war was fought in the city.
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, a 28-year veteran, told a group of officers recently that after Ward's death, police reserved undercover drug buys "for the biggest targets we could think of, guys we couldn't get any other way."
That selective use of the dangerous tactic sent a message to judges that targets of even seemingly trivial arrests needed to be treated seriously. "It still meant something to sell dope to a cop."
But the commissioner said recent administrations diluted the message by using undercover buys to target the lowest-level street pushers and users, thinking that locking up thousands of people would solve the drug problem. He said judges quickly grew wary of filling jails with addicts and concluded police had no real strategy other than mass arrests.
"And now you got hundreds of cops all over the city buying from everybody indiscriminately, and the judges figured out that there's no priorities," Bealefeld told officers gathered at a training exercise. " 'How are you telling me this guy is a bigger priority than the 386 guys I have on my docket today?' So guess who went to jail? Nobody. Nobody. A tactic that worked for us for years, and it was gone."
The commissioner didn't say any of that Thursday from the podium. It was a day to remember and to honor, and he told the guests, Marty Ward's mother, his two grown sons and their four children, that it is "not for us to judge the results of his sacrifice."
But he did say it's "a reminder that much work needs to be done ... and to learn how to deal with this seemingly impossible task."
It was impossible not to hear the echo of Bealefeld's earlier criticisms while standing on Frederick Avenue and wondering what has become of the drug war a quarter-century after it sent Marty Ward to a third-floor room above the Kandy Kitchen store and to his death Dec. 3, 1984.
Ward had spent 90 minutes talking with the heroin dealer, 26-year-old Lascell Simmons, the entire conversation secretly captured on tape monitored by DEA agents and city detectives in a van just outside. Ward was gathering evidence not only on drugs but on the killing of another drug dealer that he believed Simmons had committed.
The incriminating words captured, Ward gave the signal for the raid team to storm the front door. He knew Simmons was armed but chose to stay behind with the suspect to make sure his fellow officers were safe as they ran up the stairwell.
"This separates the true heroes from the others," said Baltimore homicide detective and friend Darryl Massey.
Simmons heard a noise and shot Ward four times before police could reach the third floor - the detective's dying words and final gasps captured on tape and played later for a jury that convicted Simmons of murder.
Gary Childs had been monitoring the audio feed and had led the raid team inside. Childs' cry - "Marty, Marty, Marty!" - was recorded on the tape and still haunts him and others.
Childs attended Thursday's ceremony but couldn't bring himself to speak. Afterward, Childs, now a Baltimore County homicide detective, stood outside the rowhouse and pondered the effectiveness of the drug war.
"Imagine what it would be like if we didn't do what we did," he said after a moment of thought. "We try to put a lid on it and make it OK for the people who have to live here."