Chief Defends Police Open Container Approach

OCEAN CITY – Some town officials have expressed their
concerns regarding how the Ocean City Police Department handles situations when
people are found in public with an open alcohol container, an offense that
brings with it a citation, or even handcuffs, depending on the situation.

Some say there are too many arrests for such a simple
violation, causing for wasted time and resources on paperwork, court trials and
other matters, while others believe this type of preemptive enforcement helps
prevent serious crimes from occurring later on.

During an Ocean City Police Commission meeting Tuesday,
the topic was hashed out between commissioners and Ocean City Police Chief
Bernadette DiPino, who strongly defended her reasoning behind the department’s
stance on the law. The conversation revolved primarily around officers using
their discretion to the best of their abilities with a few officials believing
individual judgment never came into play in some instances.

Mayor Rick Meehan began by saying most visitors who come
to Ocean City are not used to having a law prohibiting such a thing.

“I just think there should be more discretion from the
officers to allow them not to arrest everybody just for an open container,” he
said. “I think there are a lot of people that get caught and they just don’t
know.”

Meehan went on to say that with better discretion more
warnings could be given before handing out citations or placing offenders under
arrest.

“We give warnings for speeding, we give warnings for
seatbelt violations, we give them for a lot of other things and it still shows
the intent of enforcing the law and reminding the public what the law is and
that they are going to have to comply,” he said.

Councilman and commission member Jay Hancock agreed with
Meehan in that most cases the individual will comply when confronted by an
officer and simply pour out the alcohol when they have been warned, thus
effectively accomplishing the goal of curbing alcohol consumption in public
areas. He suggested the amount of arrests might not be solely because officers
fail to use discretion, but because they are looking for a reason to take
preemptive enforcement a step further.

“I know some of the officers like to make the arrest so
they have the opportunity to get into something else,” he explained. “But I
don’t think that was the intent of the open container law, to give the cops a
reason to go out and do the stop and frisk.”

According to Council President and commission member Joe
Mitrecic, seasonal officers who do not have the experience in using discretion
like the veteran cops are making most of the unnecessary arrests.

“I’m not so sure the police mentality allows for
discretion in some cases,” he said.

DiPino then defended the department’s actions, saying how
open container arrests and citations have declined since last year and that
officers are using their discretion, something she wholeheartedly encourages.

She went on to say that the department was able to reduce most
serious crimes last year and attributes this fact to the preemptive measures
taken to get drinkers off the streets earlier.

“You can’t gauge crime one year at a time because every
year there are going to be different circumstances,” she said.

According to DiPino, when the OCPD sat down and looked at
how to curtail most of the major offenses taking place, management realized the
underlying factor the offenses all shared was that alcohol was involved, from
pedestrians getting hit to rapes and assaults.

“When we address the small crimes like open containers and
the drinking in public, you reduce the more serious incidents that happen later
at night,” she said, explaining the “broken window theory”.

DiPino also said the resources that go into addressing the
smaller issues right away is not a waste like some officials think. On the
contrary, according to the chief, they are worth it since taking caring of
problems in the first place will prevent a larger problem later that will
require much more time and resources.

It was then agreed by all that the common goal should be
to teach officers how to use their discretion to the best of their abilities.

“We
are not changing our philosophy as far as what we think should be done, just
how to handle it,” Meehan said. “I feel discretion is the most important thing
our officers can use. We just need to train them more and more about the
philosophy on how we are trying to handle it, while still maintaining some type
of control.” 

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