Tough talk is exactly what got Ocean City in this position with the spinoff elements of the former H2Oi event.
Much of the vitriol pointed at law enforcement is a direct result of the motorists knowing full well they are not wanted here. The other part, which cannot be understated, is the extreme degradation of morals among many segments of society.
Last weekend was not unusual for this gathering of vehicle owners, despite perceptions it was worse than ever. To be certain, there are more people than ever focused on wreaking havoc on town roads, littering wherever possible and disrespecting police officers. These people are empowered by the fact the town wishes they would not visit. They embrace the notion people are scared of them and consider them punks. They hate the police, and their messages taped on to their vehicles and their actions confirm it.
Our biggest fear with this event is the safety of our police officers. It’s a miracle there were not more significant injuries. These cops are husbands and wives in our community. They are parents. They are youth sports coaches. They are volunteers at schools. Their safety matters. Though it’s an expectation they put their lives on the line every day they put on their uniforms, what they endured last weekend was ridiculously dangerous.
These law enforcement officials were called every name in the book. When they would respond to a call for service, their vehicles would be pounded with bottles and debris. They were treated terribly, and their lives were in jeopardy all weekend. Did police overreact in some specific instances? Maybe. Should we trust the timely discretion of our police officers and not trust an online video devoid of context? Absolutely.
When I watch a police officer taze a man who seemingly was doing nothing but running his mouth in a foul fashion, we trust the cop there was more to it. We have faith in the discretion of the officer. To the contrary, these young folks here last weekend despise authority. They feel harassed by law enforcement and take umbrage at those who are charged with protecting peace and order. They take out their frustrations with not being welcomed to town on police, especially when getting hefty tickets and their vehicles impounded.
The town needs to find a new approach with this group. Toughening the special event zone through state legislation may help the matter. It also may not have an impact whatsoever. After last weekend, it’s difficult to determine whether it helps in the least bit.
The tough talk and harsh comments at this week’s press conference served no purpose other than allowing the regional media an opportunity to get all their answers in one setting. The resulting news coverage of the town’s reaction that it didn’t like being “under siege” and would explore all options to ensure it doesn’t happen again was mockery from the H2Oi community and a threat, which is likely baseless, to return for Cruisin next week.
What matters is the months to come. Planning to declare a state of emergency for that weekend and allowing property owners onto the island will crush many business operations and stop other special events like the wine festival and powerboat races. It’s not realistic. The operations most impacted by a town closure as if there was a hurricane looming would be the hotels, fast food operations and similar types of restaurants and convenience stores. They were busy last weekend by most accounts.
The fact is this group is going to return in future years because Coastal Highway allows them the space to show off for the gawkers on the sidewalks. It’s not the beach, Boardwalk, ocean or bay that brings them here. It’s the straight, multiple-laned highway they love and can’t get in Atlantic City (where the official H2Oi event is now held).
The only realistic answer lies in more law enforcement because the troublemakers badly outnumber the police. Hauling in help from the National Guard or other law enforcement agencies may be beneficial. It also might not help at all, but it’s the only option as far as a safety standpoint.
In the meantime, over the months until next year’s gathering, we would advocate for town officials to take a more creative approach than simply reiterating the message these folks are not wanted and foolishness will not be tolerated. The city should make efforts to reach out to the hosts of the social media pages that drive this unofficial event. A more welcoming approach could help tamper the hostilities. It might not. We certainly know what does not work – the status quo.