OCEAN CITY — On the cusp of another summer season, the issue of public safety, on the Boardwalk specifically, was broached again this week in an impromptu discussion at the close of Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting.
While Ocean City remains a majority of the time and the police department is committed to maintaining peace and order, it’s no secret there has been a changing perception about the overall safety, particularly late at night on the Boardwalk. A particularly violent stretch in the span of a couple of weeks in June last summer remains on many people’s minds. There were numerous fights, weapons seized, stabbings and a shooting. Though early in the season, there was a reported stabbing last weekend late at night on the Boardwalk during a fight involving two groups.
Those incidents are likely isolated and not necessarily unique to Ocean City, but resort officials still seek for solutions to the image problem with resources allocated over the off-season to creating a new game plan to combat crime. Throughout the last year, the issues have been addressed constantly at the police commission level and in closed Mayor and Council sessions and occasionally in the public forum.
More full-time police officers are on the way, the department has been successful in filling out the ranks of seasonal officers and public safety aides, even to a higher extent than last year, despite the growing labor crunch and a reluctance of many to pursue a law enforcement career in the current climate.
The issues were raised again this week during the public comment period at Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting. Resident John Siney said he has been coming to Ocean City since he was a child and recently bought an uptown condo. He raised concern about some of the safety issues, particularly on the Boardwalk at certain times of the summer.
“I feel like the environment is changing and it’s a little scary,” he said. “When you go down to the Boardwalk, people come here because they want to relive the memories of when they were young.”
Siney said his comments were reflective of the opinions of others he has spoken with about the issues.
“I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘hey, it’s not like it used to be,’” he said. “It’s not safe down there. I just wanted to sound the alarm how quickly it can change.”
Local resident Nicholas Eastman, who ran for council last fall, echoed similar sentiments.
“I’m concerned Ocean City is trending in a downward direction,” he said. “I find that concerning.”
For their part, the Mayor and Council did not shy away from the comments on Monday. Councilman John Gehrig acknowledged there were challenges and said steps were being taken to address them.
“There are a lot of challenges,” he said. “We’re blessed to live in one of the best places on earth. We don’t run from the challenges. We invest in public safety and we’re committed to hiring more public safety officers.”
Gehrig said increased public safety is just part of the overall equation.
“We also invest in a lot of ideas on the other side of the coin,” he said. “We’re not just enforcing our laws, but also investing in business development ideas and how to attract customers who are going to respect our town and become future residents because they love Ocean City.”
Gehrig pointed to the recent hiring of Director of Tourism and Business Development Tom Perlozzo, who starts in July, as an example. He also said there is a thin line between perception and reality about the safety of the Boardwalk at certain times.
“We’re committed to that,” he said. “We’ve hired a new position to lead that effort. You can go down to the Boardwalk almost all the time and feel safe. Some of this is real, and some of it may be a little over-spoken, but we’re addressing the challenges.”
Mayor Rick Meehan on Monday also acknowledged the challenges the town faces at times.
“Public safety is our number one priority and there are challenges,” he said. “Our challenges today are maybe more difficult then they have been in the past, but we’re continuing to do everything we can to manage them.”
Meehan said the town has been working with the OCPD throughout the year to address the situation in June last year and assure it does not repeat itself.
“I know the Ocean City Police Department and our chief are aware of what the challenges are,” he said. “They’ve made some changes. They will be throughout the town, but particularly on the Boardwalk in increased numbers and they’ve changed deployments. They understand the issues they are facing, and they’re prepared to face them. We’re going to continue to move forward and make sure Ocean City is safe for everybody.”
As far as Boardwalk safety goes, Meehan said there is often a thin line between perception and reality.
“I go down to the Boardwalk all the time, and I’ve never had any concern about being safe,” he said. “Sometimes, perception is part of it, but I can tell you as far as I’m concerned, it is safe to go down there. We all have to be cautious everywhere we go today. Make sure we go to police officers and make sure our kids are educated to go to police officers and together, we can keep our community safe.”