OCEAN CITY — About six months removed from a particularly violent stretch in Ocean City in June and about six months away from a potential recurrence next summer, the issue boiled to the surface again this week.
In the span of about two weeks in mid-June, there were at least two stabbings and several major altercations on the Boardwalk including a major fight that resulted in the severe beating of a young man. Fifteen guns were confiscated in nine days. The pattern continued throughout the rest of June as the incidents intensified with more significant altercations and packs of young people running wild on the Boardwalk. The incidents reached a crescendo on one particularly violent Friday night when law enforcement was forced to utilize a tear gas-like substance to break up unruly crowds.
The reasons for the outbreak are likely many. For example, the unruliness seen in Ocean City was likely a symptom of the unrest and riots that were unfolding around the nation. The COVID pandemic was in full swing, diminishing the typical June crowds somewhat and making hotel rooms and rental units readily available and less expensive for the unruly crowds.
The J-1 foreign seasonal workers were not in Ocean City because of COVID, making those lower-priced accommodations more readily available. On top of that, most major June events were cancelled or postponed, including the Firemen’s Convention and the OC Air Show, which attract a different clientele to the resort during the month.
In the weeks that followed, Ocean City officials promised bold action to prevent a recurrence of the violent stretch next June. Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Chief Ross Buzzuro this fall asked for and was granted approval for 10 additional full-time officers, some of which are in the training pipeline for next summer. In addition, Ocean City is attempting to bolster its seasonal officer program and the public safety aide program to increase visibility on the Boardwalk and other known hot spots. Local resident and former Ocean City Council candidate Nicholas Eastman broached the subject during the public comment period of Monday’s meeting. Eastman said the time was now to begin planning for next summer.
“I want to talk about June this past year,” he said. “It’s never too early to start thinking about safety. On the Fourth of July, we went to the Boardwalk and walked two blocks before leaving.”
Eastman said it appeared the “broken window” theory was evident as the unruliness unfolded in June. The broken window theory is a popular criminology theory that suggests visible signs of minor crimes and civil disorder creates an environment that encourages further disorder including serious crimes. Eastman suggested loose enforcement on some of the town’s lesser ordinances contributed to an atmosphere that encouraged the more serious crimes.
“People were smoking weed, drinking, skateboarding,” he said. “Those are all minor crimes, but they need to be enforced. All of the city’s ordinances need to be enforced. I agree with the broken window theory. All of our ordinances need to be enforced.”
Councilman John Gehrig agreed the problems last June needed to be addressed now before the summer season quietly creeps back in a few months.
“June was brought up,” he said. “I think we need a regular briefing from now until June about what we’re doing about June. It should be something standing for both June and the pop-up weekend. We need to make sure we’re thinking about it all year long.”
Councilman Mark Paddack, a former resort police officer, praised the department for handling the challenging situations, identifying suspects and making arrests. Many of the suspects charged with serious crimes last June and throughout the summer are now making their way into the court system for adjudication. There are some challenges with trying the serious cases because of ongoing COVID restrictions on the judicial system, but many of the higher-profile cases from last year are making their way now into court.
“Kudos to the Ocean City Police Major Crimes Unit for multiple suspect identifications from the crimes during June,” he said. “Those suspects charged are being brought before the Worcester County Circuit Court and I think their clearance rate is around 90%.”
Paddack said the criminal element in town last June was particularly troublesome.
“It’s very unfortunate that these non-resident criminals come to this town in June,” he said. “We don’t invite them. They show up here and they decide to act the way they do. I am 100% in favor of zero tolerance.”
Paddack reiterated the town’s efforts to bolster the police force to prepare for a potential recurrence next summer.
“Resources are limited in June and we need to understand that,” he said. “As a council, we are working together to try to reverse that and improve that., but when you look at the cases that are brought forward, many of the suspects have been charged and they need to be held accountable by the judicial system.”