Mayor, Senator Defend Ocean City Police’s Use Of Force; Local NAACP President Seeks Third-Party Investigation

OCEAN CITY — How much force is appropriate has been the subject of much debate nationally and the issue hit close to home this week.

After a pair of incidents involving arrests on the Boardwalk over the last two weekends resulted in shortened videos circulating on social media, the Town of Ocean City and its police department has been navigating a sea of national negative publicity. Whether the use of force during both incidents, one last Saturday and another on June 6, was justified under the circumstances will ultimately be determined by an internal investigation by the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) and its Office of Professional Standards.

In both incidents, the confrontations between officers and young adults began with attempted citations for vaping outside designated areas of the Boardwalk and ended with physical confrontations between law enforcement officers and the suspects. It’s important to note the social media videos that went viral depict a fraction of the entire incidents, largely the parts when officers resorted to the use of force to subdue unruly and uncooperative suspects, whom in some cases physically and verbally assaulted officers.

In a statement this week, Mayor Rick Meehan said the incidents were being investigated and the town was cooperating completely.

“The Town of Ocean City is currently investigating two incidents that are circulating on social media,” he said. “It is standard procedure to run a thorough investigation into any arrests where the use of force is initiated.  We believe in total transparency and will cooperate fully in these and all investigations.”

Meehan explained both incidents, from which videos are circulating on social media and beyond, began with OCPD officers attempting to issue citations for vaping in undesignated areas of the Boardwalk and ended with physical confrontations when the suspects did not comply with officers’ orders. Whether the use of force was justified in both cases, one during which a suspect was kneed repeatedly and another in which a suspect was tased while holding his hands up, is the subject of the current investigations. In his statement, Meehan explained how vaping citations resulted in arrests.

“While the Town of Ocean City does have an ordinance that prohibits vaping and smoking on the Boardwalk, this by itself is not an arrestable offense,” he said. “It is a municipal infraction and subject to a fine. Refusal to comply with warnings to stop vaping or smoking resulted in the officers asking for ID to issue a citation. It was only after the individuals refused to provide identification that this became an arrestable offense.”

Meehan said in the statement the OCPD’s primary goal is enforcing municipal ordinances, such as smoking, vaping and even littering, is outreach and compliance first. He pointed to the public outrage after videos of parts of the incidents circulated and resulted in less than flattering comments from some state officials.

“Ocean City is currently the second-largest city in the state of Maryland and our primary goal is to keep all of our residents and visitors safe by enforcing the laws and ordinances in place,” he said.  “We hope to seek compliance, not arrests, in order for everyone to safely enjoy our community.  We respect the concerns of all citizens and state elected officials who have commented on the videos. We pledge, on our part, to work together and thoroughly investigate the incidents in question.”

State Senator Mary Beth Carozza (R-38) took part in a ride-along with OCPD officers last weekend, but did not witness the Saturday night incident on the Boardwalk. It was the video of the officer kneeing the man in the side while he laid face down on the Boardwalk that went viral on social media.

“As the State Senator representing Ocean City and as a long-time resident of Ocean City, I have had countless opportunities to see and interact firsthand with the members of the Ocean City Police Department over the years,” Carozza said in a statement. “I personally walk the Boardwalk from end to end along with walking in neighborhoods throughout Ocean City and other areas of my district which includes all of Worcester, Somerset and half of Wicomico.”

In her own statement this week, Carozza defended the OCPD in general based on her observations during the ride-along.

“On Sunday, June 13, I participated in a seven-and-a-half-hour night ride along with the OCPD, which included witnessing several incidents, violations, and arrests,” the statement reads. “Throughout the entire night, it was clear to me the public safety of visitors and residents was the top priority as I watched members of the OCPD, including foot, bike and vehicle patrol, enforce the laws and ordinances of my home community.”

Carozza said during her ride-along with the OCPD, she observed six different incidents and saw no indication of the allegations swirling around the department this week.

“In all six of the incidences that I observed, the officers and public safety aides approached the individuals regardless of race, age or gender to inform them in a factual and courteous manner of the ordinance or law and their violation of it,” she said. “In these incidents, the initial officers on the scene were backed up by additional OCPD officers or public safety aides to ensure the safety of all involved. In one of these incidences, a female officer was assaulted by a female detained for disorderly conduct and public drinking. In another incident, a handgun was found in a car initially pulled over for a traffic violation. In all of these incidents, I personally observed the OCPD officers and public safety aides handle themselves with professionalism as they worked to diffuse and resolve the situation at hand.”

Carozza said she viewed the entire video of the incident in question last before issuing her statement and making any assessment about the situation.

“When I asked OCPD about the June 12 Boardwalk arrests being shared on social media before making a public comment, I was shown the entire OCPD video of the event, not just snippets, and given the facts of the violations,” the statement reads. “The facts are that the four individuals detained in this incident were arrested for multiple violations including disorderly conduct, failure to obey a reasonable and lawful order, obstructing and hindering, second-degree assault, and resisting or interfering with the arrest. The individuals were informed of the smoking and vaping prohibition on the Boardwalk, and their follow-up violent actions led to their arrest. These are the facts.”

Gov. Larry Hogan addressed the situation briefly on Tuesday during his larger press conference about the pending elimination of the COVID state of emergency in Maryland. Hogan said he had seen the video from last Saturday’s incident and his office had reached out to Ocean City for cooperation in the investigation.

“It was a disturbing video,” he said. “It watched it yesterday as it was hitting the atmosphere. We reached out and had a conversation with the mayor of Ocean City, and our state police have reached out to the Ocean City police. We’re just anxious to get the initial investigation conducted so we can have all of the facts before we make any further statements about it.”

By Wednesday afternoon, the Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held a press conference in front of the statehouse in Annapolis to address the Ocean City situation specifically and the statewide issues of excessive force by law enforcement in general.

Worcester County NAACP President Ivory Smith called for an independent investigation into the incident on the Boardwalk last Saturday, seeking the suspensions of the officers involved until the matter had been adequately probed.

“I’m calling for a third-party investigation of this incident,” he said. “I have reviewed the video that has been available to me and the sight of a young black man being kneed repeatedly by a police officer for being uncooperative is an unacceptable use of force.”

Smith said he spoke from experience as a Worcester County resident and former employee in Ocean City.

“As president of the Worcester County NAACP branch, I understand the importance of having a safe and welcoming Ocean City,” he said. “As a lifelong resident, I worked security and other jobs in Ocean City and I have seen and heard a lot. That’s why I’m calling for a third-party investigation from other agencies besides Ocean City.”

Smith suggested not all races and ages enjoy the same Ocean City experience and called on the resort for change.

“I’m looking forward to the time we won’t have to worry about our kids and families coming to Ocean City to have a good time,” he said. “With what we’ve seen from last weekend, our kids came down to Ocean City to have a good time, but the end result wasn’t a good time.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.