OCEAN CITY — Chief Ross Buzzuro is looking forward to his fourth summer in the resort as the head of the Ocean City Police Department after spending 25 years with the Baltimore Police Department. While he says he’s still getting used to some of the glaring and idiosyncratic differences between the Maryland’s largest city, and the state’s 2nd largest city during the summer months, Buzzuro says crime numbers are down in the resort, and he’s set to go in front of the Mayor and Council next week to outline just how low those crime numbers have gone.
Buzzuro sat down with The Dispatch to talk about crime, how good planning and new technologies are helping the department function with great aplomb, and whether or not we will ever see body cameras worn by OCPD officers in the future.
Q: Since you came on board, the perception about crime in this resort has almost comprehensively been that it is seemingly going down. I know you are going before the Mayor and Council next week to present the OCPD’s annual report. Will your message to the Mayor and Council be congruent to similar to that almost town-wide perception that crime is in fact going down in the resort?
A: Yes it will. We have had very good results in the past year, in 2015, and in the past several years. We have seen significant decreases in overall crime and crime statistics. I have to give credit where credit is due, and that is to the hardworking and dedicated police force. Whether it’s the officers on the road, or the officers involved inside, detectives, or in charge of investigations, the entire department has a stake in where we are today. I’m very pleased where we are, and of course, there is always work to be done, but we are looking to the future very optimistically. Obviously, our plans and our strategies are working, and I’ll be reporting on those much more in depth next week at the council meeting.
Q: What do you attribute the success or the improvement in the crime numbers? Is it a good plan or is it the better enacting of that plan?
A: It’s all of the above, and then some. Not to sound cliché, but we have a great police department here, a great force, and the officers are very well trained and have great experience. Also, coupled with that is the partnership with the community, the businesses and our visitors. For a lot of people, Ocean City is sacred. They don’t want to see anything adversely happen to their Ocean City as they’ve always known it. With that being said, people let us know when things aren’t right. They call us, they give us tips, and they give us a helping hand. Also, I appreciate the tremendous help from the Mayor and Council. I’ve had to come to them and ask them for support on different items and they have given their support wholeheartedly.
So, collectively, all those things are why we are in the situation that we are in.
Q: In recent years, the department has not only stuck to a plan, but it’s also added some tools in the tool bet, and that’s evident in the new technologies are being used. Certainly, this department has gotten much better with utilizing social media. For instance, this “Wanted Wednesday” initiative where you blast criminal’s mugshots over the interwebs in hopes that someone will call you with a lead. But, let’s talk about the usage of Boardwalk cameras. That was a big thing when it was implemented a few summers ago, but talk about the cameras’ impact thus far?
A: That’s another example of the support we’ve received from the public and the council. This will be our third (summer) season with the cameras, but we use them on a daily basis. They truly become instrumental during the season. They have really helped us investigate certain crimes and certain incidents that have happened have been captured by the use of the cameras. We also provided a helping hand to other law enforcement agencies in capturing very serious and dangerous felons. It’s that “big brother” within reason. It’s a tool for us and a helping hand. We are very optimistic looking forward to the future with possible expansion with more cameras. There has been very minimal downside, so all in all, there are a lot of good positives. For us, it’s just another built in where we can contribute a lower crime rate to them.
Q: So unequivocally, you can connect crimes that have been prosecuted or criminals that have been apprehended because those cameras were there?
A: Yes we can. We don’t know what the future holds, but we are excited and optimistic. For us internally, once you use the cameras and have a little bit of time under your belt and find out how to utilize them in the best possible manner, that’s what we are moving toward. Even after the fact, if something has occurred, the ability to go back and look at the footage and see what really happened is truly a great asset.
Q: You talk about that expansion of technology in the future. I know there has been some discussion about the usage of license plate readers stationed on at least one of the entry points into the resort. I guess the mindset for these license plate readers is to help stop the proliferation of drug dealers coming into town. What else would they be used for, and how close are we to seeing that type of technology used in Ocean City?
A: They are being used every day (across the country) and we are moving towards Ocean City in a very short period of time, within the next several months, speaking optimistically. I believe the town will, from a geographical standpoint, will be covered by LPR’s. I know there are concerns about them in the minds of some, but we don’t store any of that information. The information is sent through our partners in the Maryland State Police. When a criteria is met, and there is a trigger, we respond. We respond to a vehicle that is stolen. Maybe the tags are stolen or the individual may be wanted, and there are other criteria that we use with the LPR’s. But, it’s very exact and we don’t arbitrarily just stop vehicles. We have seen a great deal of success, and the LPR’s are attributed to stopping very dangerous felons in other communities and it’s a tool that is giving us a true helping hand. I also want to get the word out, because if you are coming to Ocean City and you are operating a motor vehicle that is stolen or you are wanted, don’t come to town because we are going to know about it, and we are going to stop you, and we are going to take action. If that can provide us an additional layer of public safety, the good side really outweighs the negatives.
Q: One last thing about new technologies in police work. In Baltimore, where you were for 25 years before you came here, the police department is set to instill the nation’s largest comprehensive body camera program beginning in May. What are your thoughts on this move or this public outcry for police officers to wear cameras in the wake of the Freddie Gray case, Will having cameras on officers change things for the better or for the worse about how police work is done?
A: I think the public demands a high degree of transparency from law enforcement and I think the cameras offer that. Nothing is absolute and nothing is perfect. We are looking at cameras and we want to keep abreast of that technology and we have met with vendors. We don’t know exactly what the future holds for the Ocean City Police Department, but we certainly want to be cognizant about that technology and know what it provides. You know, there are concerns. There is a cost factor, and it’s not cheap. There is a storage issue, and questions about what officers wear the camera, or do all officers wear the cameras? Are all conversations recorded? There is a contingent of the public that are a bit lukewarm to the idea too, because it is an infringement on their rights. Did they want to be recorded? Are the actions of citizens going to change when they know they are being recorded and are in the presence of a police officer and vice versa? The camera doesn’t really bear out the human aspect of life. It doesn’t factor that in. So, I know there are other agencies even on the shore that are beginning to implement the cameras. If we do move towards that in the future, I think you’d want to do a testing phase, because you wouldn’t want to just jump into something without knowing if it’s for the greater good. Look at Baltimore, we know that many urban police departments are heading in that direction, but for us here, in a rural area, is somewhat different. But, the bottom line is that there is a public demand to know that officers are doing everything right, and we certainly want to ensure them that we are.
Q: So, all philosophical debates aside, and certainly there are merits to both sides of the argument, would you be opposed to having body cameras on police officers in Ocean City, all things considered?
A: No, I think that if you look at the totality of the facts that are out there, I wouldn’t be opposed to them. I think I would look at things optimistically, and think how do we ensure that we are acting in a professional manner and ask if we are tending to the needs of the public by being as transparent as we can? So, just on its face-value, I am not opposed to the cameras.
Q: Going into this summer, do you feel like your tenure as police chief is really starting to hit its stride?
A: Just looking back, it’s really moved kind of quick. I’m starting my fourth season. But, yes, those relationships that you build and really getting to understand the dynamic and the true ins and outs of the town are great. I have a great staff and they point a lot of things out to me. I’ve been in law enforcement for 31 years, and the beauty of this profession that I’m so passionate about is that you never stop learning. That’s one of those intangible qualities about being in law enforcement. We are firing on all cylinders and we are all collectively really optimistic as we move forward into the season.