OCEAN CITY — In a sweeping interview this week, Police Chief Ross Buzzuro explained why he believes Ocean City is a safe place to live and visit and what he plans to do to keep it that way.
Hired July 1, Buzzuro is no stranger to Ocean City, as he has owned property locally for years, but his roots are in the Baltimore City Police Department, where he began in 1985 and worked his way through the ranks to become lieutenant colonel in 2007. He was selected by the Mayor and Council in June, and his tenure began on a sad note, as he was sworn in one day after two members of the Ocean City Police Department were killed in an off-duty plane crash off Ocean City.
In the weeks prior and since Buzzuro took over, there have been several high-profile crime incidents in Ocean City. In a roundtable discussion with The Dispatch this week, Buzzuro, along with Public Information Officer Mike Levy, outlined how his urban background and experience with video surveillance and intelligence gathering will benefit the town in addressing general safety concerns.
Q. It was interesting to me to see you at the fatal plane crash scene involving two fallen Ocean City police officers in late June. That occurred one day before you were sworn in as the new chief. What are your reflections on that experience two months later?
Buzzuro: When I first started, many thought ‘it was the worst possible time you could possibly be brought in.’ I look at it conversely. It wasn’t the best time, but it was most the ideal time for me as a leader of the agency to come on board. That tragedy called for leadership, and I had to hit the ground running. For me, it was a time that I could come in and galvanize the department together in such a terrible, tragic time period.
Q. As you know, this has been a unique summer in Ocean City from a crime perspective as well as a public relations standpoint. Last week you came before the Mayor and Council to present crime statistics for July and outlined the fact calls for service and many other key numbers were down. There have been concerns that the crime report is not reflecting the reality and that crime is more of an issue than the data indicates. How do you interpret those numbers?
Buzzuro. As I said, in that open session, for us we look at gauges. Our crime statistics are our primary gauges, and they measure our effectiveness and the health of the town. It’s subjective. It’s not perfect, but for us it gives a pretty good indication of where we are currently and if we are going in the right direction. There’s talk about less population, but in any type of survey or study you can be off several percent either way. For us, for me, it’s looking at those numbers and they are indications for us to see how we are doing, how we are deployed and how we are strategizing.
As you indicated, calls for service … we have officer initiated calls for service that are up and citizen calls for service are down. That’s where we want them. I want the officers to be proactive and I want them to go out there and maximize their time on the street. Those indicators are showing that’s happening. That along with calls for service going down and crime being reduced by 11 percent, last year we were up 5 percent, … for me, I say there’s a lot of work to be done but we are moving in the right direction.
Q. Let’s talk about the Boardwalk, which has been in the spotlight this summer as far as safety concerns. You have spoken about surveillance and intelligence enhancements on the horizon. Can you detail specifically what you have in mind?
Buzzuro: I have been on the Boardwalk, as well as you have, in an on-duty capacity as well as an off-duty capacity. I must say the Boardwalk is not generally safe, it is truly safe.
Any area where you have a high volume of people, we do have our incidents. However, perception is reality. As we look forward, we are looking at technology. Even before that, we are looking at how we can maximize our resources, our personnel, their placement on the Boardwalk, trouble spots that we have previously seen and how we can place our officers in a deliberate fashion as we move forward.
We also want to introduce technology in the form of video cameras as a force multiplier so we can have those additional eyes that can give us assistance and place them in strategic places based on our data from previous incidents. That will help maximize our defense and maximize public safety. You have the personnel, the ground forces, and the introduction of more technology for the Boardwalk in the form of video cameras.
On the Boardwalk, we have our uniformed officers, but we also have a contingent on plainclothes officers who work the Boardwalk. Their initiatives and strategies will be scrutinized as we move forward to maximize their abilities as well.
Q. There are security cameras on the Boardwalk now. Does the police department utilize them?
Buzzuro: We are not currently utilizing them in a law enforcement prevention capacity.
Levy: It’s not an active system. It’s a passive system. We use them when we need them for big events. For the most part, the ones that are active now are used for tourism and for accountability. What the chief is talking about is these other cameras will be an actively monitored system. In other words, you will have someone watching these things to provide another set of eyes when we don’t have an officer. What that does is supplement officers with a much more expansive view than they have currently.
Q. Based on your experience in Baltimore, are there any other specific tools from your urban background that you would like to implement within the force that are not being used now?
Buzzuro: I think overall my experience in Baltimore City in a wide variety of exposure and capacities will help. People are people and Ocean City is the second most populated city in Maryland during the summer. Coming from a wide range of experiences with a variety of people, from the most impoverished to the most affluent, you see a lot of that here as well in our unique resort. We are a service department, but we are also a committed crime fighting agency.
My experiences in Baltimore and my training and knowledge I can apply here. For me here, I’m looking at the systems and the processes in place to make sure we are as effective and progressive as we possibly can be. The bottom line here is we want anyone who comes into town to enjoy themselves. That’s what Ocean City is all about, and I think that’s what most people think of — peace, enjoyment and relaxation. Conversely, if anyone wants to come into town and wreak havoc, I want them to know we are going to be ready, willing and able to be aggressive and if we have to arrest them and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. That’s for the overall safeguard of the town.
Q. You mentioned the diverse nature of our area, and the socio-economic swings noticed here have been discussed a lot. Do you have a philosophy on that? Ocean City wants to cater to families, but some believe less families are coming and being replaced by an unwelcomed element.
Buzzuro: That’s not an easy question to answer. The bottom line is we want everyone to come here and enjoy themselves and also behave themselves and leave their mark in a positive manner.
We have concerns on the Boardwalk. We are going to do whatever it takes to maintain peace and order on the Boardwalk within the parameters of the law. Some of our concerns on the Boardwalk lie with some of the items being sold and what type of element does that attract. We talk about beer bongs, underage drinking, explicit T-shirts and there are still merchants that sell knives. Why does anyone need to sell knives on the Boardwalk? They are not Swiss Army knives by the way just for clarification. We have seen an uptick in weapons violations. Is that a causal type of phenomenon? We are looking at that.
We are not in this alone. Our effectiveness and success is predicated on a community relationship. It’s also the relationship of the merchants and the merchants policing themselves. It’s the lease owners as well who need to police themselves and talk with the leasees. They have to give us a helping hand. We need to clean up some things, quite honestly, as we move forward.
Levy: It’s important to note when a beer bong or a shot glass says ‘Senior Week 2013’ they are not drinking milk out of that. Who buys that? Certainly, not us. What do you use those items for? It’s clear. Shirts that promote or glorify the drug culture do not need to be promoted in the community.
As the chief and you have seen from your investigation this month, I have seen this growing proliferation. For a while, we were a head shop on the Boardwalk until we addressed that. We need to talk with the property owners. Why is that person’s lease allowing them to sell those types of items? The onus has to go back to the property owners, to an extent. You reap what you sow. If you’re going to allow that kind of merchandise in your space, you are going to create challenges for all of us, particularly tourism in Ocean City.
Let’s face it — Mommy, Daddy and baby don’t want to walk by a store blasting inappropriate music with a Rasta man smoking a fatty. It motivates less than respectable behavior and mannerism. On top of that, we as a community are now facing conduct issues that could be a result of those kinds of things.
Q. Both of you are touching on points that have not traditionally been vocalized and that’s probably because it involves dictating to private enterprise how to govern operations. You have identified a problem. What’s the practical solution?
Buzzuro: I will be vocal when it comes to public safety, which is something I take very seriously. If I see there’s something that’s at the detriment of public safety, then I’m going to be vocal about it.
Getting back to the knives being sold on the Boardwalk issue, I cannot remain quiet about that because of the dangers that causes and its inappropriate use. There’s no real legitimate use for it, particularly at the beach. I have a responsibility to public safety.
We have to work together in a partnership, whether it’s with the merchant association, the community at large, education or through enforcement. I think all of these types of entities have to come together and we have to find some common ground as we move forward. We are a big part of it, but we need that assistance. We need to be met half way. It’s important to note we will do our part, but when it comes to things that are obvious and it’s obvious to the majority of the public, my feeling is help us out.
Levy: We are not trying to dictate morality. We do routine sweeps for martial arts weapons violations that are already illegal, counterfeit merchandise and sexually-explicit merchandise that is legally not allowed to be displayed. It doesn’t mean it can’t be sold, but it can’t be displayed. Nothing in that precludes vulgarity, which is a First Amendment right. It’s protected speech. When you see the drug culture stuff and other things, it’s not illegal. You can display that all the way out in front and we have received a lot of complaints from citizens about that. It’s challenging as a department to find that balance. Why do we need a case of weapons on Boardwalk front? What’s next? Are we going to put a gun shop on the Boardwalk, too?
Buzzuro: It doesn’t belong on the beach. We need the property owners to meet us half way. I understand free enterprise and capitalism, but there has to be some type of meeting us half way. We need to have a change in products, merchandise, attitude and culture.
Q. Do you see addressing the issues brought up today something that can be done within your existing budget or will more resources be needed? It seems logical the cameras will need a funding injection. Outside of that, do you need more cops?
Buzzuro: Not necessarily. We have a budget and we have to stay within the parameters of the budget. More money would obviously be great and allow us to introduce more things, but we have to be realistic. Can I get the job done within that budget? Absolutely. Can I get the job done with the current force contingent? Absolutely and we can do it in a manner that provides Ocean City with the safest community possible.
Q. In my opinion, the most disturbing incident of this summer was a late-night stabbing when a man was dumped in a hotel lobby and the victim refused to cooperate with police on who did it. The alleged link to gang activity was what was most disturbing. Are gangs a problem in Ocean City?
Buzzuro: No I don’t believe gangs are a problem, but we have to be cognizant that we may have individuals who come into Ocean City and spend time in Ocean City. That is a reality, but gangs as a whole and gang activity, we are not seeing that as problematic. We are very cognizant and fortified in our abilities if we did start to see a problem with the proliferation of gangs or gang activities. We would be able to address it. That’s getting back to the items we are introducing as we move forward and expanding our intelligence and our partnerships with allied agencies and our local sources of information from within the town.
Levy: We don’t have gang activity in Ocean City. We have been visited by people in gangs. We had the July 4th incident from a couple years ago where the kids that were arrested told us it was an inadvertent meeting of two rival gangs from Salisbury. We were very public and transparent about that. It did cause a lot of discussion.
As far as the incident you mentioned, that cannot be confirmed. The victim provided extremely limited information. The outcome of that creates an issue. He was taken into the hotel by people he was with and they left. Having said that, you have to understand we are going to be visited by all kinds of people, some we really enjoy having and some we would rather not.
Q. One of the more pleasant turn of events this summer is the fact pedestrian, bicycle and scooter accidents are down significantly. There have been no fatalities reported and as of earlier this month accidents were down 50%. What do you attribute that to?
Buzzuro: There are several reasons. It’s education and we really went back and did our research. Where those pedestrian accidents took place, how they occurred and when. All that information was culled together and our partners teamed up on education and enforcement. The State Highway Administration has been invaluable as well.
Levy: Our crime analyst, Brandon Reim, deserves a tremendous amount of credit. We would still be analyzing the situation had we not had a crime analyst who was tracking it diligently. He was able to provide information to State Highway that they would have had to conduct a study to get. We would still be a year out if that occurred. All the improvements, safety enhancements and education were really largely based and predicated on the data compiled and coordinated and analyzed. All of that was given to these agencies so money and time could be spent fixing things and enhancing safety. I think an over 50% reduction in these accidents has far exceeded any expectations. The analyst was instrumental in getting that data in a timely fashion and the importance of that cannot be underscored.