OCEAN CITY — Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan addressed some of the concerns with the melting pot the resort becomes each June, including the anticipated “College Takeover Beach Week” event this weekend that is expected to draw several thousand college-age individuals.
The unsanctioned event was expected to begin Thursday and continue through Sunday. In April 2013, the event in Virginia Beach resulted in crowds estimated at 40,000 to 50,000 college-age individuals invading the resort town. According to reports, the big crowds roamed the streets, disrupted traffic and businesses and generally struck fear in local residents and other visitors to the town. Perhaps more importantly, the event included several significant crimes including three shootings, multiple stabbings and other serious crimes, all within the span of a few hours in the popular Oceanfront area of Virginia Beach. In a four-hour span, media outlets reported more than 900 calls were made to 911 services.
In April, the same event returned to Virginia Beach with decidedly different results. After the 2013 disaster, Virginia Beach officials attempted to embrace the influx of visitors proactively with a stronger police presence and a more welcoming and less combative attitude. Virginia Beach officials also urged a positive partnership with the private sector, encouraging businesses to remain open and provide services for the throngs as opposed to shuttering their windows and closing their doors. The result was a much calmer event with few if any reports of significant crimes.
At the conclusion of the council meeting on Monday, Meehan took the opportunity to address what he perceives as a mounting hyperbole in Ocean City about the expected arrival of the event this weekend, pointing out the month of June always presents challenges because of the diversity of the groups sharing the resort.
“I want to talk a little bit about the month of June in Ocean City,” he said. “It’s our most unique month and it always presents some challenges. This weekend, we have a big beach soccer tournament downtown and a major youth lacrosse tournament uptown. We’ll have the VFW convention, the MML convention and, of course, the influx of the future leaders of America, the high school seniors who will descend on us in great numbers.”
Meehan said the addition of the anticipated self-proclaimed “takeover” event only complicates an otherwise challenging situation.
“All of those things will be joined this year by what we think will be a large group of college-age students,” he said. “There has been a lot of press on this and it really is amazing what social media can do in this day and age. ‘Takeover’ is a word that is causing the most concern, but maybe we’re taking this the wrong way.”
On one hand, the mayor seemed to be indicating rather than fearing the event attendees the town should embrace the diversity of its visitors and prepare to shower them with hospitality and a welcoming atmosphere.
“We’ll have a wide range of groups of all ages and events and activities,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of them are here to have a good time, but a few individuals will cause problems. We welcome all parties to Ocean City with the understanding they obey our laws. This is a great place and everybody wants to be here. We just hope everybody wants to be here for the right reasons.”
In the next breath, however, Meehan described police are vested and ready for whatever the weekend brings.
“The Ocean City Police Department and our chief are well prepared as always and this weekend will be no exception,” he said. “We’re going to have full deployment with the help of our allied law enforcement agencies and we’ll have the proper personnel in place. There are a lot of rumors circulating about this event, but Chief Buzzuro has our police department well prepared.”
Worcester County Sheriff Reggie Mason last week echoed the mayor’s sentiments about the anticipated event and promised to have the necessary resources on hand in the resort to meet any potential public safety threats.
“We’re going to have a heavy presence in Ocean City and in West Ocean City,” Mason said last week. “We’re going to have officers on horseback and we’re going to bring in our four-wheelers to patrol the beaches. We’re going to have officers patrolling the outlets in West Ocean City and we’re going to be all over the place.”
Somewhere in the middle, of course, is the appropriate level of police presence to handle the event and all of the other events going on simultaneously without the appearance of a police state and the second College Beach Weekend in Virginia Beach in April of this year could provide a blueprint for a successful weekend. After the College Beach Weekend event in 2013 ended in near disaster, the Virginia Beach Police Department enlisted the help of the city’s Human Rights Commission prior to the repeat event this April. The HRC then formed a group of 20 neutral observers that would patrol the streets in the Oceanfront area during the 2014 event and record information and ultimately make recommendations on how the city could better handle the event in future years.
“The mission of this team was to serve as welcoming ambassadors for the citizens and visitors to the Oceanfront during Beach Weekend by providing general information, observing city services and assessing the atmosphere with regards to safety, friendliness as well as any signs of discrimination,” the HRC report reads.
Following a more successful, calmer event this April, the HRC observers prepared and submitted a detailed report of what they encountered as they monitored the event over the next three days.
“Most observers agreed that the large police presence made a difference to people, especially young people who needed to feel safe,” the report reads. “It is apparent that having such protection and presence can deter some inappropriate behavior. It was great to see young officers and veteran officers patrolling the streets. The officers’ body language and vocal directions demonstrated they were in a public safety mode versus a riot control mode.”
The HRC observers reported the Virginia Beach Police presence achieved the desired results for the most part, but flirted with crossing the line on some occasions.
“For most of the observers, this visual presence generated a very positive message,” the report reads. “However, a couple observed the VBPD physical stances as being threatening, heavy-handed and unwelcoming. The decision to have no visible riot gear contributed to creating an atmosphere of peace for all visitors.”
The HRC report described a diverse crowd that was generally well-behaved.
“The crowd consisted of a large group of young adults, who were having fun and perhaps happy to be away from supervision,” the report reads. “It appeared some people were intoxicated. The overall attire was age appropriate. The language was foul at times and comments from males to females were a little unsettling to hear and raised some safety concerns for females.”
The HRC observers reported the Virginia Beach Police and the allied law enforcement agencies were effective in moving the crowds of pedestrians along.
“As with any event with this number of people, you are going to have incidents,” the report reads. “When these incidents occurred, the police would quickly remove violators who threatened to disturb others. When people would stop to congregate on the sidewalks, the police would ask them politely to continue to move. This was very effective …”