Slain city police officer was known for caring about community he patrolled

Vigil brings out police and residents in tribute

  • Lucette Gamble, 47, right, talks about her son, Sean Devon Gamble, 22, at a vigil held for him at Woodlawn High School. She said, "My heart is hurting." He was killed by police on Sunday outside the Select Lounge in the 400 block of N. Paca St.
Lucette Gamble, 47, right, talks about her son, Sean Devon Gamble,… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
January 11, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Along Pennsylvania Avenue and other drug-infested corners, they knew him as " Nike boots," "Black," and "Batman."

Nike boots for the shoes he wore when he chased suspects through alleys. Black because he was dark-skinned. Batman because he and his partner formed a "dynamic duo."

Most of all, they knew William H. Torbit Jr. -- the officer slain this week -- as a tough but fair officer who was active in the community even when he was off the clock. When he locked you up, you knew you had it coming, but he stayed in touch and built bonds. Some credited him with turning their lives around.

"He would talk to you, find out what your situation was," a woman who would only give her first name, Annette, said as she smoked a cigarette on a street corner Tuesday afternoon.

In a moment of unity in a neighborhood where police and residents are often at odds, dozens of community members joined officers and Torbit's relatives for a candlelight vigil Tuesday night on Pennsylvania Avenue, a notorious drug corridor that he once patrolled.

At first, perhaps out of habit, the crowds gathered on opposing corners, at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Mosher Street. But after a short time, officers were lighting candles for residents, who tacked silver balloons onto a light post. They all stood quietly as freezing rain fell.

Torbit, a plainclothes officer who worked in the Central District, was shot early Sunday while trying to help quell an unruly crowd outside a nightclub near downtown. Police believe Torbit, 33, was attacked by people outside the club, and opened fire. Fellow officers saw someone firing a weapon and shot back. Police say 41 rounds were shot in all, and a complete investigation of the incident could take weeks.

Detective Michael Miller, Torbit's partner on the streets for all eight years since they joined the Police Department, said it wasn't surprising that Torbit, who often played the role of peacemaker, found himself in the middle of the crowd that night.

"He was that guy who'd walk up and calm the neighborhood down," Miller said in an interview Monday. "I still take it as, he's going to come out and say this is all a joke. But it's reality."

Torbit grew up in Southwest Baltimore's Edmondson Village neighborhood, and in his mid-20s decided to join the police force. As a city native, he wasn't intimidated by the streets and didn't retreat to the suburbs after finishing up work.

Instead, he often found himself right back on those same corners, eating at restaurants, driving around to make sure it was safe for kids to play, getting his car washed and talking to residents. Sometimes he'd help serve patrons.

"I said, 'What you doing coming around here after work, somebody's going to kill you, boy,'" recalled friend Sean Rideout, who said he looked up to Torbit and followed him into law enforcement. "He came back because he loved his neighborhood. He loved his people."

Tanika Robinson, a 22-year-old resident of the Upton neighborhood, said she looked up to Torbit as a role model. She brought candles and a bunch of balloons to the night's vigil to remember the officer she described as "well-hearted."

While some officers would bark at residents to get off the streets and threaten them, Torbit would pull individuals aside and offer suggestions for what to do instead, she said. Later, he'd return to the community and spend time with them at a local recreation center.

"Some people live for their job, and some people don't," Robinson said. "With some people, it's more than a paycheck."

Those who ply the drug trade call officers like Torbit and Miller "knockers," plainclothes officers who often hop out of unmarked cars and chase down dealers. Instead of responding to 911 calls, they largely freelance with proactive investigations and interviews.

Over the years, residents got to know the pair as "Batman and Robin." Gregory Lassiter, 61, said Torbit could be rough. But he had nothing but praise for the officer.

"He used to throw me down, rough me up a bit, just to try to get me straight," said Lassiter, who says Torbit called him "Merlin" because of his bushy beard. "He stayed on me for a long while, explaining how old I was and how I needed to stop [hustling], and it finally sunk in. He's going to be missed."

Izel Fisher, who like Lassiter flagged down a reporter when he heard someone was asking about Torbit, said occasional rough-and-tumble tactics come with the territory. "That's the way they have to carry themselves, because this is a rough area," said Fisher, 40.

Michael Mfume, who said he was best friends with Torbit, said the officer wasn't always working. He lived in Catonsville, and enjoyed working on his home -- he was building a deck, and the inside of his home was "immaculate," Mfume said.

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