OCEAN CITY — With the calendar flipping to September this week, the resort’s motor vehicle task force convened last Friday to discuss strategies for fall motorized special events.
The motor vehicle task force reconvened last Friday to continue planning for a series of sanctioned and unsanctioned special events in the coming weeks. While there was some discussion on the relatively tame fall Cruisin event, the focus was largely on the unsanctioned pop-up car rally expected at the end of September.
After a particularly troublesome motorized special event season a few years back, Ocean City formed the task force to begin exploring strategies to combat some of the lawlessness and abject bad behavior associated with some of the participants. Out of those early sessions came the first iteration of special event zone with lower speed limits, enhanced enforcement powers, increased penalties and enhanced fines.
Those early sessions also led to an increased police presence in town during certain motorized events in partnership with allied law enforcement agencies along with a stronger partnership between the town and its residents and business owners. Still, those early measures, which did achieve some successes, were not enough to curtail some of the lawlessness and the reckless behavior continued and even worsened in some cases, particularly during the unsanctioned and social media-driven pop-up rally.
The special event zone, along with the expanded law enforcement presence, a stronger towing ordinance with stiff fines and penalties and the growing partnership with the private sector was successful in putting a lid on last September’s pop-up rally for a couple of days, but the event reached a crescendo on Saturday with lawlessness reaching new heights on the streets.
Mayor Rick Meehan, who put together the task force and chairs its meetings, opened last Friday’s meeting with an assessment of how far the town has come and how far it still must go.
“This has been going on for four years now,” he said. “That shows the commitment of everybody in this room. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there are still challenges.”
OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro said the goal with all the strategies is to gain compliance from some of the unruly visitors and not necessarily go to war with them.
“For us, we’re hoping for the best,” he said. “We don’t want to be in conflict with visitors to Ocean City. We’re hoping for compliance. This doesn’t have to be us versus them.”
Nonetheless, Buzzuro said there will be no shortage of law enforcement resources during the fall motorized events, especially during the unsanctioned pop-up event.
“We have a number of resources,” he said. “We want to exceed the number of resources we had last year. We want an acceptable level of resources and it will be all hands on deck.”
Since the end of last year’s pop-up event, strategies have been discussed at the police commission level monthly, and in closed sessions of the Mayor and Council, and, of course, during a handful of task force meetings. Buzzuro said resources will be deployed similar to last year, but there were some tweaks he wasn’t prepared to discuss publicly.
“We have had a plan since last year,” he said. “We’ve made some adjustments, but I can’t go into specifics. It will be proportionate to the level of resources last year.”
During the fall motorized special events, including the pop-up rally, the special event zone will be deployed throughout Worcester County and not just in the resort and the area around West Ocean City and Ocean Pines, for example. The enhanced towing ordinance with increased fines will be deployed again and strictly enforced. Traffic patterns will be altered at times during the events and speed bumps or speed humps will be deployed in certain residential communities. Buzzuro said all efforts combined will help curtail some of the reckless behavior, but will also create headaches for residents and other visitors.
“One of the negative aspects is traffic being heavily congested at times,” he said. “Traffic patterns will be altered at times and traffic is going to be heavy. You can expect that going in. If you don’t need to be on Coastal Highway, we advise against it.”
While strict enforcement is the first line of defense during the events, the key follow-up is collecting the countless citations issued and adjudicating the arrests made for various offenses. Last year, there were 277 arrests made during the pop-up rally including 127 on Saturday alone. Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser said during the task force meeting last week her office handled around 500 cases related to the motorized special events, of which nearly 400 had been adjudicated.
“Many are still working through the system,” she said. “Roughly 80% have been resolved and we have around a 90% conviction rate. We’re grateful to law enforcement for bringing us cases for which we can get convictions.”
Council Secretary and task force member Tony DeLuca questioned if there would be temporary speed bumps utilized on Coastal Highway. Buzzuro said he wasn’t sure that would be an effective strategy.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” he said. “This is one of those items where you ask is this advantageous in terms of Coastal Highway. There may be more negatives than positives. We can use them in our communities and we can move them around. At the end of the day, I don’t know if they’re something that can assist us on the highway.”
Of course, making the general public aware of the event helps ease their concerns and answering their questions. Last year during the pop-up rally, a public outreach command center of sorts was set up to field questions from the public and handle reports of reckless behavior from the private sector. Communications and Marketing Director Jessica Waters said there is a lot of advanced outreach going on and similar measures from last year will be in place during the event.
“We’re doing a lot of outreach to property owners and visitors,” she said. “We’re going to do a lot of the same things from last year with that with the call centers and answering calls. We’re going to keep the lines of communication open.”
One of the tools in the motorized event toolbox discussed on Friday was the OCPD’s Trespass Enforcement Authorization Program, or TEAP, in which business owners allow law enforcement to come on private property to enforce laws and resolve situations, particularly when businesses are closed. It was revealed around 200 private businesses have signed up for the program.
Another issue discussed was the need for private businesses to provide security on their own properties, allowing the OCPD and its allied partners to focus on the problems on the streets. Meehan urged private businesses to provide private security during the events.
“Everybody needs some level of private security,” he said. “They can’t expect the OCPD, the State Police and the Sheriff’s Office to come to the rescue every time. They can’t expect law enforcement to take care of internal problems.”
Meehan said another strategy is simply to bring in better and bigger events during those troublesome weekends. Just two weeks ago, a well-known promoter pitched the idea of bringing a music festival to Ocean City during the same weekend as the pop-up rally.
“We’re looking to bring in good business during those dates,” he said. “We’ve kind of been on the defensive, but we’d like to be on the offensive. We’ve been approached about a three-day concert on those dates and they know what to do and how to do it. Whatever we can do to define our own destiny. The best way to do that is to bring on other big events.”
In closing, Buzzuro said there will be a major police presence in town during the pop-up rally, but the atmosphere doesn’t have to be adversarial if the participants simply comply with the rules.
“We’re going to carry on, but not get carried away,” he said. “We don’t want to be in conflict with our visitors. We want to keep people safe. That’s the bottom line. We want to have people come into town and do the right thing.”