OCEAN CITY — Among the takeaways from last week’s motor vehicle task force wrap-up on the late September pop-up car rally is focusing attention on the court system following through with a heavy-handed approach to those charged by police.
In late September, the pop-up car rally, as it is now being referred, brought huge crowds of largely unruly, disrespectful visitors who wreaked havoc on Ocean City for the better part of four days as expected. Ocean City, its police department and its allied partners were as best prepared as ever heading into the pop-up car rally week with an enhanced special event zone law, a beefed-up towing ordinance, altered traffic patterns and road closures and all manner of equipment and resources on hand.
Those combined measures worked to a large degree for much of the weekend, but despite the thankless efforts of law enforcement and first-responders, the pop-up car rally was a disaster Saturday night. As Ocean City and its partners ramped up their enforcement efforts, a large majority of the pop-up car rally enthusiasts ratcheted up their unruliness in kind.
The motor vehicle task force convened last Friday for the first time since the September unsanctioned event and reviewed what worked and what could be done in the future. Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Chief Ross Buzzuro was asked what the next important step was in deterring the pop-up event in the future and he said it could come down to successfully prosecuting the hundreds of cases and meting out the appropriate penalties and fines.
“It’s wait and see,” he said. “Now, we go into adjudication. We have a very strong state’s attorney’s office and it comes down to adjudication. We have to provide airtight cases to prosecutors and need to follow through in court. We need to make sure the message is sent and we need to make sure this is not all for naught. If you come to disrespect Ocean City, there is a price to pay. That could be the deciding factor in what happens going forward. We’ll see that in the days and months to come.”
Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser said on Monday her office was prepared to prosecute the numerous cases that came out of the pop-up rally event, but it was up to the judges to mete out the appropriate punishments.
“I agree with Chief Buzzuro that it is important to follow through in getting convictions and we are certainly prepared to do that,” she said. “We can and will ask for maximum or increased penalties as appropriate on a case-by-case basis, consistent with our ethical obligations as prosecutors, but all we can do is ask. The sentences for these cases are within the sole discretion of the judges that hear them.”
The special event zone was in place in Ocean City and along the major thoroughfares in northern Worcester County throughout the week. Heiser said it could be beneficial to expand those boundaries in the future.
“I think we need to consider expanding the special event zone county-wide,” she said. “If we expand it to the entire county, we don’t have any questions about whether they are in special event zone from a prosecution standpoint.”
Heiser called for stronger traffic enforcement for the pop-up rally enthusiasts along highways throughout the state to curb some of the behavior before they even reach the resort.
“It really is bigger than our town and even our county,” she said. “We need to coordinate efforts throughout the state. That’s the goal here. Everything along the way on Route 50 and even everything along the way through Delaware would be extremely beneficial. We can rebrand that week as traffic safety week.”
Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Greg Slater was on hand for last Friday’s task force meeting and agreed some of the activity during last month’s pop-up rally in Ocean City mirrored some of incidents in other parts of the state often with tragic consequences.
“We saw an incident with drag racing in Prince George’s County where we had eight fatalities in the blink of an eye,” he said. “What I see with this event in Ocean City is just a whisper away from that.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said most of the initiatives in place achieved the desired results and thanked the community for their cooperation and participation.
“Our community really did step up,” he said. “Most understood what was going on and the citizens supported us. We weren’t sitting idle. We did what we said we were going to do.”
Buzzuro agreed most of the initiatives were successful.
“Why all this time and effort and resources? To achieve an acceptable level of public safety,” he said. “Were we successful? We believe so. We did whatever we could within our scope and authority.”
Buzzuro commiserated with the locals and other visitors in town who got caught up in the traffic jams and altered traffic patterns associated with the pop-up rally and urged them to continue to be patient.
“This is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s only going to get worse. I feel terrible about the people who got caught up in this and were stuck in traffic, such as our employees and workers. I understand their level of frustration, but this is an extraordinary event. We’re all in this together and we’re going to get out of this together.”
Buzzuro presented an overview of the pop-up event and said the intent was to set the tone early from an enforcement standpoint
“On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we really tried to set the tone with the enforcement and the towing,” he said. “We believe we were successful in setting the tone. That wasn’t by accident. They knew law enforcement was going to very proactive and the word got back to them.”
Buzzuro said the initiatives worked for the most part before the crowds really started to swell.
“By Saturday morning, they were really pouring in,” he said. “They were pouring in Route 50, Route 90 and through Delaware and we knew Saturday night was going to be the culmination. We did everything in our ability.”
The chief said the larger problem quickly became the throngs of bystanders and spectators on the side of the road.
“We had a degree of success on the roadways,” he said. “Roads were always the primary problem in the past and number-two was the situation on the sidelines. That changed on Saturday. The spectators watching the show became the primary problem.”
Buzzuro said the event reached a crescendo on Saturday night.
“By Saturday night and into Sunday morning, the crowds became more brazen and additional law enforcement was called in,” he said. “We were in riot gear with helmets and we wanted to put an end to it once and for all. There were some dicey moments, but it could have been much worse. At the end of the day, we got through this. We did everything possible.”
As the arrest counts started to swell, the OCPD and its allied partners turned to another resource, Buzzuro said.
“We began transporting arrestees to the Worcester County Jail because we were at capacity,” he said. “That’s unprecedented, and we had to do that three different times.”
Many of those arrested or who had their vehicles towed lingered in town into the early part of the following week.
“The special event zone was still in place that Monday,” said Buzzuro. “There were a lot of arrestees and those who had been towed still in town on Monday. They were in town a little longer than they wanted to be.”
Another problem identified during the task force meeting last week were the large groups of rowdy individuals on hotel and motel balconies egging on the illicit behavior, particularly along Baltimore Avenue. Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones told the task force many of her members had success with private-sector security guards and said the plan was to bring in even more next year, akin to bringing in more law enforcement officers from other areas.
“The attitude of the guests toward the security officers was 100% different than the attitude toward police officers,” she said. “If a security guard said get back in your rooms, they complied. If a police officer said it, they threw bottles. It’s part of that nationwide attitude toward police officers we’ve been seeing. We’re working on bringing more security guards from around the state.”
As far as getting information out to the public in a timely manner, Communications Director Jessica Waters said her team, which manned the information center around the clock, was successful.
“The goal was to control the narrative and I think we did that,” she said. “There was a very noticeable shift in the calls and complaints we received. They were coming from the participants. They were saying ‘you towed my car,’ or ‘are you going to tow my car.’”
The task force got a different perspective from local resident and car enthusiast Mike Ferrari.
“Ocean City is seven miles long with three lanes of traffic,” he said. “You have this unique atmosphere where we have seven miles to show off our cars. The good guys just want to show off their cars, their craftsmanship and their passion. We have to find a way to have an event and discriminate those who are here to enjoy the cars and everything Ocean City has to offer from those who are only here to wreak havoc.”
Meehan said there is a shift in focus during the pop-up rally and other motorized events that differs from the many of the town’s other special events.
“I never thought Coastal Highway would be the venue,” he said. “It’s always the beach and the Boardwalk and the attractions. Coastal Highway was never meant to be the venue, but that’s what this has become.”