OCEAN CITY — Following a pair of incidents earlier this month when the Ocean City Police Department’s use of force was questioned, the state’s Office of the Public Defender this week called for an expedited mandatory use of body-worn cameras for the department’s officers.
The two incidents resulted in cell phone videos circulating on social media, putting the town in the unenviable position of navigating a national public relations storm. In both incidents, the confrontations between Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) officers and young adults began with attempted citations for vaping in undesignated 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 just a fraction of the entire incidents, largely the parts when OCPD officers resorted to use of force to subdue unruly and uncooperative suspects, whom, in some cases, physically and verbally assaulted officers, according to court documents.
Both incidents began with OCPD officers attempting to issue citations for vaping outside of approved areas on the Boardwalk and ended with physical confrontations when the suspects did not comply with officers’ orders. In both cases, officers were threatened by the suspects before force was used. 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.
During this year’s General Assembly session, amid a myriad of other police reform bills, state lawmakers approved legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to require their officers to wear body-worn cameras to document their interactions with the public. Senate Bill 71 was approved by the General Assembly, but was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. The assembly then overrode the governor’s veto largely along party lines.
According to language in the bill, it would “require certain law enforcement agencies to require the use of body-worn cameras by July 1, 2023 for each law enforcement officer that regularly interacts with the public, requiring a certain body-worn camera to automatically record and save at least 60 seconds of video footage immediately prior to the officer activating the record button, requiring each law enforcement agency to establish a certain system to identify police officers who are at risk of using excessive force, and to provide appropriate responses to reduce the risks.”
In the wake of the well-publicized incidents, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender this week fired off a letter to Mayor Rick Meehan and OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro urging them to expedite the state mandate requiring body-worn cameras for resort police officers.
“The Office of the Public Defender joins in the public outcry related to the recent viral video that depicts members of the Ocean City Police Department using excessive force against visiting youth based on a minor ordinance violation,” the letter reads. “In addition to the investigation of this incident that are underway and related measures being called for by community groups, I urge you to take meaningful steps to improve transparency and accountability measures beyond this incident. Specifically, the Ocean City Police Department should obtain body-worn cameras (BWC) and adopt and implement a BWC policy as soon as possible.”
Whether the use of force during both incidents was appropriate under the circumstances will ultimately be determined by an internal investigation by the OCPD’s Office of Professional Standards. When the incidents went viral last week, local officials pointed out in various public statements the videos portrayed just snippets of the larger incidents that escalated to the use of force and not the entire turn of events that led to the action.
Anecdotally, some officers in the law enforcement industry have issued statements in the past saying they welcome the use of body-worn cameras for that reason. Body-worn camera footage would ostensibly show an entire 12-minute interaction and not the most-damning 12-second snippet. Of course, the body-worn camera footage would not likely be made available to the public, unless it was used as evidence in the public trial, for example, but it could assist in internal investigations into incidents.
Nonetheless, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s letter is adamant about expediting the use of body-worn cameras for the OCPD in the wake of recent incidents. The letter authored by District Public Defender Chastity Simpson, who called the incidents disturbing.
“The video of Ocean City police tasing, kneeing and restraining black youth for purportedly violating a smoking ordinance is disturbing, but sadly not isolated,” she said. “My office regularly represents individuals who are stopped for a minor violation that escalates due to police conduct.”
Simpson said similar incidents around the country are often recorded by private citizens, but the fact they were recorded on a crowded summer Boardwalk casts a different light on them.
“What is unique about this interaction is that a private citizen was brave enough to record the mistreatment and to publicize the video,” she said. “Oversight and accountability of police conduct should not require recordings by private citizens.”
The incidents in question are still being investigated internally, but Simpson’s letter calls for immediate and decisive action by the town and the OCPD.
“Youth, tourists, and black and brown individuals generally should feel all welcome on the Ocean City Boardwalk without fear of police escalation and excessive force,” the letter reads. Now is the time for decisive action, not just to address what happened last week, but to bring our police department up to the quality and standards of national best practices. Body worn cameras have become standard-issue equipment in law enforcement agencies across Maryland and the country. BWCs serve a valuable role, not just in promoting transparency and accountability, but in recording evidence, promoting professionalism and documenting officer performance and interactions with the public.”
For its part, the town of Ocean City and its police department were guarded in their response to the Maryland Public Defender’s Office letter this week, largely because the internal investigations into the incidents are not yet complete.
“We are aware of the comments made by the District Public Defender,” said Ocean City Communications and Marketing Director Jessica Waters in an email on Wednesday. “The investigations into the incidents are underway. Due to the ongoing investigation, we are unable to comment further at this time.”