OCEAN CITY — A takeaway from the recently requested and approved 10 additional full-time officers in Ocean City is the steady decline of interest in the seasonal officer program.
Two weeks ago, the Mayor and Council approved the hiring of 10 new full-time OCPD officers at the request of Chief Ross Buzzuro and his command staff. This week, the town’s elected officials began a series of work session discussions on how to pay for the additional full-time officers, which could come at a cost of around $1 million annually.
The need for 10 new officers is based on a variety of factors, including the steady increase in special events and the expansion of the off-season. However, the request is deeply rooted in the steady decline of the once-popular seasonal officer program. For decades, the OCPD has augmented is year-round workforce with as many as 100 seasonal officers or more in some years.
The seasonal officers naturally have less training and experience and also less authority than full-time sworn officers, but they provide depth in the height of the summer season, and perhaps more importantly, a high degree of law enforcement visibility on the Boardwalk and in other densely populated areas. Buzzuro said this week the seasonal officer program decline, coupled with the expansion of the off-season necessitated the request for more full-time OCPD officers.
“The two main culprits are the off-season special events and the drain on the seasonal officer program,” he said. “The overwhelming cause is the seasonal officer program. There has been a 75% reduction since I started eight years ago.”
The numbers bare that out. For example, there were 646 applicants for the seasonal officer program in 2014, a number which declined to just 158 this year. Granted, recruiting efforts were curtailed by COVID-19 last spring and there are other fairly recent societal changes regarding law enforcement, but even in pre-COVID 2019, there were only 200 candidates for the seasonal officer program.
“We believe it will be even more difficult with the societal changes with regards to law enforcement,” he said. “When you look at police reform, the Maryland legislature is already considering changes, changes that could lead to us considering eliminating the seasonal program. Whether it is reduced severely or non-existent is the primary reason for the need for additional full-time officers.”
This year, of the 158 applicants, just 50 were hired, or 30 less than the 80 that were budgeted. Buzzuro attributed some of the decline this year in a reduced ability to go out and recruit because of COVID limitations, but also said there is a growing disdain for law enforcement around the country among some segments of the populace, which is contributing to the challenges of hiring seasonal officers.
“It’s a recognition of the state we’re currently in and we need to fortify ourselves,” he said. “We had at least 100 seasonal officers for 20 straight years. It’s not an exact science, but we believe 10 full-time officers is roughly the equivalent of 30 seasonals. That 1:3 ration is reasonable. We gain knowledge and experience, but we lose some things in terms of depth and visibility. We would never want to turn away seasonal officers, but we just not going to see those numbers.”
OCPD Captain Mike Colbert outlined the recruiting, vetting, hiring and training efforts for the seasonal officer program. Colbert said part of the problem was the inability to effectively recruit during COVID, but also pointed to the societal changes in attitude toward law enforcement.
“In 2019, we visited 78 colleges and universities,” he said. “In 2020, we visited zero. There is also a significant anti-police bias among our target audience, which are college-age adults. This is an unprecedented challenge with no clear path to follow. There is no playbook on the shelf.”
Colbert said there has been a general decline in interest in law enforcement careers in the current climate.
“There is a declined enrollment in college criminal justice programs and a decreased interest in careers in law enforcement,” he said. “When you throw in police reform with increased standards and mandated testing, we don’t see it turning around in the long term. That’s why we’re looking at decreasing our reliability on the seasonal officer program.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca said the town had to find away to expand the seasonal officer and public safety aide (PSA) programs, not shrink them.
“I think we need to get back to 100 seasonals and 50 PSAs,” he said. “I don’t want to see less. I want to see more.”
Buzzuro said as much as the department would like to see that, it isn’t going to happen.
“I’m advising you we’re not going to get 100 seasonal officers,” he said. “It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that. It isn’t getting easier. It’s getting harder.”
Councilman Dennis Dare used a baseball analogy to illustrate the importance of the seasonal officers, many of whom return year after year and are eventually hired as full-time officers.
“We’ve been very fortunate with the seasonal program,” he said. “It’s like the minor leagues. You get to observe them all season and the very best get called up to the big leagues.”