Ocean City Police Use Of Force Questioned Following Vaping Violation; Internal Probe Underway; Police Report Details Incident

Ocean City Police Use Of Force Questioned Following Vaping Violation; Internal Probe Underway; Police Report Details Incident
A still image from a video showing an arrest on July 6 is shown. File Photo

OCEAN CITY – Resort police are working through use of force protocols in response to allegations of brutality during last week’s arrest following a Boardwalk vaping infraction.

Cell phone videos posted online over the weekend show a police officer clearly punch a suspect while police held him down following a physical encounter with the Maryland man who was vaping on the Boardwalk.

The incident stems from July 6 around 12:43 a.m. when an Ocean City police officer and two public safety aides on foot patrol on the Boardwalk were asked by Denzel Elam Ruff, 34, of Lexington Park, Md., about the city’s smoking ordinance. Police advised Ruff of the city law and possible fines for smoking violators.

The statement of probable cause document filed in the District Court of Maryland states, “Ruff stated, ‘Who’s going to pay that? Not me.’ Ruff continued to walk southbound on the Boardwalk towards Dorchester Street, where he looked back at us and intentionally smoked his vape, raising his hands in the air at us.”

When police attempted to stop Ruff to issue him a citation, the Maryland man ignored orders and attempted to elude police multiple times. Ruff was then informed he was going to be detained, but he would not comply with attempts to administer handcuffs, according to the statement of probable cause report. Ruff was taken to the ground in further attempts to put handcuffs on him.

On the ground, Ruff became more combative. According to the statement of probable cause, “Once on the ground Ruff continued to resist and refused to place his hands behind his back. I then grabbed Ruff’s feet, restraining them to the ground so Ruff could not kick me or other officers. Ruff was bracing his arms underneath his chest to prevent officers from handcuffing him. PSA Foy attempted to pull Ruffs arm from underneath him. PSA Foy placed his knee on Ruff’s shoulder and was able to overcome Ruffs bracing and freed one arm. As PSA Foy was in the process of freeing Ruffs aim, Ruff rolled over to his left side.

Ruff then looked back at OFC Adams, PSA Foy and I, and yelled that he would fight us and, ‘knock all you out.’ As we attempted to pull Ruffs arms a male walking by on the Boardwalk along with people on balconies of the Belmont Towers were yelling at Ruff to stop fighting the police and comply with commands.”

During the scuffle, Ruff rolled from his stomach to his back, reportedly grabbing an officer by the uniform shirt. Police were eventually able to get Ruff handcuffed despite continual resistance.  The police report states, “Ruff continued to be non-compliant and actively resisting, pushing off the ground away from the street. We continued to assist Ruff towards the 10-block as he continued to thrash and throw his shoulders towards us. … I then observed Ruff stand up from the curb in attempt to run away …” Once obtained again, Ruff was placed in a violent person restraint device.

During the incident, which was captured on police officer body cameras as well as the City Watch Surveillance System, multiple cell phone videos were taken, including one that clearly shows an officer punching the suspect in the head during the scuffle. Media attention has followed including a segment on WUSA Monday featuring an interview with Caucus of African American Leaders (CAAL) spokesperson Carl Snowden, who plans to ask the Maryland Attorney General’s Office to investigate the police.

Ruff’s parents, Patricia Elam-Walker and Coles Ruff, who are attorneys, did an interview with the news station.  “Seeing him on the ground, seeing the policeman punching him – he’s on the ground, they’re holding him down. He’s not moving. He’s not a threat. So why was that necessary?”  Elam-Walker said. “It just infuriated me and saddened me, and it just made me feel like this cannot keep happening.” According to his Linkedin profile page, Ruff is the head golf coach at Glenelg Country School in Ellicott City and a professional caddie at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. The video and news cast can be seen here. https://youtu.be/kMLnjFYDCbs.

Ocean City Police Deputy Communications Manager Ashley Miller issued a statement this week saying, “Our officers are permitted to use force, per their training, to overcome exhibited resistance.  All uses of force go through a detailed review process. In this instance, the use of force will go through a multi-level examination by the Assistant Patrol Commander, the Division Commander, and then by the Office of Professional Standards.”

Ruff was charged with second-degree assault, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and refusal to provide identification.

Last week’s incident is not the first time a vaping infraction has led to physical aggression. In June 2021, viral videos were shared showing Ocean City police officers arresting multiple suspects after they allegedly failed to comply with orders to stop vaping on the Boardwalk in violation of the town’s smoking ordinance. In one instance caught on a cell phone video, one of the suspects is seen being kneed repeatedly by an officer. In another instance, a suspect is seen being tased by a police officer.

CAAL also sought the attention of the state following those incidents. Mayor Rick Meehan and city leaders met with CAAL officials following the 2021 incidents.

During the month of June, there were 57 smoking citations issued in Ocean City, down from 352 in June 2022, 433 in June 2021 and 241 in June 2020.

During a police commission meeting this week, Chief Ross Buzzuro said the drastic drop in citations was a result of compliance, not reduced enforcement. Though not mentioning the active incident gaining attention, the chief made reference to aggression at times when police need to question.

“We’re still very proactive and have compliance. We’ve already had a couple instances where non-compliance has led to a physical interaction. That’s unfortunate, but that’s part of what comes along with that type of enforcement.”

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.