OCEAN CITY — The ongoing debate amongst council members and police officials concerning the proposed amendment to the General Order that addresses police officers and the right to carry a weapon while consuming alcohol has sparked a bit of controversy throughout Ocean City in recent weeks.
The perception from the public concerning the proposal, which essentially says that an officer could carry a weapon if their blood alcohol level is below a .04 (half the legal limit), has largely mirrored Councilman Doug Cymek’s zero-tolerance stance that guns and alcohol simply don’t mix.
While the police department has argued that there is in fact a fine line between an officer’s dedication to serve the public and being able to enjoy their private lives while off duty, officials stress the fact that the order clearly states that officers are not encouraged to carry a weapon if they intend to drink alcohol while off duty.
Essentially, the debate has largely been about topics or scenarios that will more than likely remain hypothetical situations, and both sides have acknowledged that fact.
Still, as a result of the growing debate and perhaps in hopes of dispelling further scrutiny, Chief Bernadette DiPino spoke with The Dispatch this week to set the record straight on the department’s stance and to personally address the public’s growing concern about the matter.
Q: Are you surprised by how much attention this discussion has stirred from the public, and do you think that it’s getting blown out of proportion in any way?
A: No, I don’t think it’s being blown out of proportion at all, as it is an important topic, and I do agree with the notion that alcohol and guns do not mix.
What I think that people are missing, though, is that this proposal is not making our policy more liberal in any way. On the contrary, what we are proposing with the less than .04 [blood alcohol content] limit, will keep a tighter grip and lay out a rule that we will easily be able to tell if someone has broken. At the same time, we have to be realistic with the laws we set.
Q: Councilman Doug Cymek has taken a bit of a hard line with his belief that the General Order should reflect a zero tolerance on officers who are carrying their weapon when it comes to drinking, and there are many in the public realm that agree with him. Why do you disagree with his stance in this case?
A: Again, I think we are trying to be realistic and although I understand where he is coming from with the zero tolerance policy, I don’t think that it’s realistic and would put undue burden or stress on our officers.
To use myself as an example, if I were to go out and have a glass of wine at dinner, one drink over the course of an hour or two dinner is not going to affect me or the normal person to the point where I would not be able to react to a situation.
My concern is that if we instill a zero tolerance policy and we have a situation that needs police presence, I might call an officer and they could tell me that they couldn’t come in because they just took a sip of beer. It could cause serious staffing and management issues for the force, and concerns about public safety.
Q: The current police rules and regulations state that officers are not supposed to drink alcohol within eight hours of a scheduled shift. It was pointed out last week that town employees, including lifeguards for instance, are to be sent home for at least 24 hours if they are found to have more than a .02 but less than a .04 of alcohol on their breath. Do you think that police officers should be held to a similar standard, when you factor in the presence of weapons?
A: I don’t really think that it’s comparing apples to apples and maybe not even apples and oranges in that case. Police officers are highly trained with and without their weapon and the public trusts officers with their safety, and we accept the higher standard that we are held to as police officers.
We have a dangerous job and it’s our job to react if something happens anytime, including if we are out to dinner and having a glass of wine. We are simply trying to find the balance. People think we may be trying to allow more drinking, but we are doing just the opposite.
No one is trying to say that police officers should go out and party like everyone else while wearing their gun and then go and bust the party they attended the night before the very next night. That wouldn’t make us the leaders in the community that we try to be as police officers.
Q: There’s been a growing concern amongst parents with young children in this community with the recent national coverage of two terrible local incidents involving a Delaware pediatrician, who some are now calling “America’s worst pedophile” and the untimely and horrifying death of 11-year-old Salisbury resident Sarah Foxwell.
Anyone with young children have seen the number of registered sex offenders that live in Ocean City and the surrounding areas via the Internet, but what can you tell the public that the OCPD is doing to ensure that kids in this area are safe from similar crimes.
A: As always, we will have patrols out there 24/7, and one thing that I have always believed in is that a police department and the community has to work together to ensure the safety of our children.
I would tell parents to do a few things: 1. Go online and find out where the registered sex offenders live and get as much information about the people living in your neighborhood. 2. Know your neighbors, and lean on each other to help watch the kids when they are getting off the bus, or simply playing outside.
We live in a time when people keep to themselves now, and I really think that needs to change. The last thing is that parents need to watch out for their kids more and keep them out of situations or places that might make them vulnerable. And perhaps more so than ever, parents need to educate their kids about the dangers out there. I wish that I could tell you that we could stop everything bad from happening to the public, especially kids, but we can be better at our jobs if the public is more involved.
Q: Last week, you noted in your department’s annual report that crime is down 10 percent in Ocean City, and you theorized a direct correlation between the drop in crime, and the rise in narcotics arrests. I wonder if you think that Ocean City is a safer place now than it was when you took over as chief in 2003?
A: Without taking anything away from the officers that served before me, because I think they did a great job, I do think that our community is a safer place now because we have helped to empower the community to help police themselves and help us do our job better.
We’ve always been a safe community, and if you look at our crime rate it shows that. If you look anywhere in the country, every department is different with their rules and regulations but all departments want to keep their citizens safe. We want to be out in the field fighting crime and catching bad guys. So, if I didn’t believe the .04 limit that we spoke about earlier was responsible or reasonable I wouldn’t be backing it.