SNOW HILL — After being delayed for two weeks, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Worcester County and Seacrets, an entertainment and restaurant complex in Ocean City, for the use of Sheriff’s deputies was approved 4-3 by the County Commission.
The vote was split for a number of reasons, including the commission’s eventual decision to keep deputies at Seacrets in plain clothes as per suggestion of the Sheriff’s Office. Some on the commission felt that having officers in uniform would be the better option because of the additional protection and authority offered.
“If we’re going to be going in there, [deputies] need to be in full uniform,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
Commissioner Judy Boggs also felt what a deputy was wearing played an important part in maintaining order.
“Don’t you think there’s something to be said for [having] ‘a presence?’” she asked Chief Deputy Dale Smack.
Smack admitted that having officers in uniform had benefits, but he had “reservations” about making that a requirement with the MoU. He told the commission plain clothes officers are better able to blend into a crowd and that if need be deputies can display their badge and firearm.
The worst case scenario, according to Smack, would have plain clothes officers running into some trouble if an altercation breaks out and another agency, like the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD), entering the scene. In the confusion, Smack admitted a deputy might take a shot from a nightstick or a blast from pepper spray because the OCPD officer does not realize there are other law enforcement agents on hand.
While Smack said those situations were unlikely, Shockley appeared flabbergasted that deputies would want to run the risk of being pepper sprayed when simply being in uniform would help them stand out.
Another issue that several commissioners had when the MoU was first presented last month had to do with the $66 per hour rate Seacrets agreed to pay deputies. Commissioner Madison Bunting remarked at the time that the rate seemed low.
However, county attorney Sonny Bloxom broke down the formula used for reaching that number for the commission. He explained that the overtime pay rate for the highest paid deputies and lowest paid deputies were averaged and an administrative fee was added, which resulted in the $66-per-hour rate. Bloxom added that, because more deputies earn closer to the lower rate than the higher, Worcester was coming out ahead by using the average.
Commission President Bud Church reminded his colleagues that there will be no cost at all to the county if the MoU is accepted.
“Seacrets is paying the entire bill for our deputies to be there,” he said.
If the commission refused to accept the MoU, Bloxom said the Sheriff’s Office would still provide deputies to Seacrets during busy times as they have for the past 12 years. Under the MoU, the situation would be similar, except that Worcester will be protected against issues that might arise if a deputy is forced into a confrontation while at Seacrets.
“We have a liability issue right now,” Bloxom said.
The proposed MoU will enable Worcester to receive coverage from the Local Government Insurance Trust (LGIT), something unavailable currently since deputies are technically “moonlighting” at Seacrets, according to Bunting. Because Maryland Courts have created a “dual employers” status, Bloxom explained that the current set-up would allow someone suing Seacrets because of an incident involving a deputy to drag Worcester County before a judge as well.
“From a legal standpoint … it’s best to have the max amount of coverage,” said Bloxom in support of the MoU.
While the memorandum will reduce liability issues, Bunting wondered if it was even necessary since there haven’t been any incidents in the 12 years that Worcester and Seacrets’ prior arrangement has been in place.
“It’s not been a problem as far as insurance?” he asked.
Bloxom replied that it has not so far.
Bunting also wanted to know if deputies at Seacrets would be keeping an eye out for any potential drunk drivers that might be exciting the bar.
Smack promised that his officers would act accordingly if anyone visibly intoxicated got behind the wheel.
Despite all of the assurances, Shockley remained unenthusiastic, if realistic, about the memorandum. He admitted that the door was already open since a similar MoU with the Casino at Ocean Downs is in effect.
“While I’m not crazy about this, we started to open the bridge when we did slots,” he said.
When it came time to vote, however, Shockley voted against accepting the MoU as written, which would have deputies serving in plain clothes. He cited the Ocean Downs memorandum, which has officers in uniform when working.
The MoU passed 4-3, with Shockley, Bunting and Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw opposed.
Bloxom reiterated that going with the MoU provided the best coverage for the county and assured the commission that Worcester won’t have to worry about stretching deputies too thin, since they will only be allowed to work at Seacrets as overtime, after they have already served their shifts.
“They won’t be taking anyone off the street,” he promised.