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Ocean City police force bulks up each summer as population and crime spike

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— On a recent, drizzly Friday afternoon, Cpl. Todd Speigle of the Ocean City Police Department peered through the windshield of his police cruiser at a group of teenagers milling around the bed of a truck.

Speigle drove past, then turned around. The teens became visibly nervous. Minutes later, four of them were pouring about a case and a half of Budweiser and Bud Light down a street drain, and the two who had admitted to owning the beer had been given alcohol citations.

A few of the Police Department's newest seasonal officers — not much older than the teens being cited — stood by, helping Speigle take down the teens' driver's license information.

If this summer is anything like past summers, Speigle and his fellow officers in this buzzing vacation town will issue hundreds more alcohol citations before the end of August. After that, they'll hand out maybe a dozen for the rest of the year, and a few after that until June rolls around again.

When it comes to crime in Ocean City, police statistics show the same three-month spike year after year. In the summer, when Ocean City goes from a town of about 7,400 year-round residents to a town the size of Pittsburgh, with about 350,000 revelers on a given weekend, crimes that are rarely seen here rise dramatically. Calls to 911 reporting disorderly conduct, for instance, jumped from a few dozen most months last year to nearly 1,600 in June.

More crime not only impacts the victims and the community but also taxes the relatively small police department. Every year the force undertakes the logistical feat of rapidly doubling its ranks by recruiting and training seasonal officers who wield full police powers — including the right to carry handguns.

"We're the second-largest city in the state in the summertime, second only to Baltimore," said Chief Bernadette DiPino, a former Baltimore County police officer who has been with the Ocean City Police Department for 24 years, including nine as chief. "We prepare for the summer all year long."

The most crucial of those preparations, DiPino said, are the department's recruiting efforts.

Each summer, the Police Department, about 100 members strong in the winter, recruits about 100 additional seasonal officers to patrol the town, many of them criminal justice majors at East Coast colleges and universities.

"For an agency our size, you wouldn't think we need to do a lot of recruiting, but we actually do as much recruiting as the major metropolitan police departments," DiPino said.

That dynamic makes Ocean City unique. A special state legislative allowance, on the books for decades, allows the Police Department to fully deputize officers after a four-week training period. Full-time officers in the state train for about six months.

Many of the seasonal officers are college students getting a dose of policing between semesters to determine whether they want to pursue a police career. Many of the force's full-time officers got their start on the seasonal roster. Other seasonal alumni include Salisbury Police Chief Barbara Duncan and U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who worked as a seasonal officer in 1967 and 1968.

Ruppersberger, who also was a member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol for years and has a condominium in Ocean City today, said he remembers those summers as a wild time, living with fellow seasonal cops, breaking up fights and pulling "stoned" teenagers off the boardwalk. But he said the experience also strongly impacted his life, helping lead him to a career in law.

"You sure grow up real quick when you're a police officer in Ocean City," he said.

The seasonal officers' youth and lack of experience require a degree of supervision from the department's full-timers, and some don't remain in the program. But the program has a strong track record for producing high-performing officers, Speigle said.

"It's a great advantage," Speigle said of the program, and how it prepares the next generation of officers. "We use it kind of as a tool for hiring people. We use it to gauge their performance."

According to Cpl. Scott Bernal, who has been with the Ocean City Police Department for 23 years, the seasonal officers have become more critical than ever as the town has grown busier with a burgeoning tourist industry. Even winters are losing their calm, he said.

"It used to be we were really dead in the winter," Bernal said. "We're not anymore."

Still, nothing compares to the summer surge, he said. This Memorial Day weekend, when hundreds of thousands of people came through town, was the single busiest weekend Bernal can remember, he said.

The department took between 300 and 400 calls per night that weekend, said Speigle, who spent two summers with the Police Department as a seasonal officer before becoming full-time in 2004.

"We would have never been able to handle that without the seasonals," he said.

Police statistics for the past five years show massive summertime spikes in crime: noise complaints, traffic stops, aggravated assaults, thefts, drug and alcohol arrests, and weapons seizures.

In 2011, 936 adults ages 18 to 20 were given citations for alcohol possession. Of those, 877 were cited from June through August — 714 in June alone, when many high school graduates spend their "Senior Week" in town.

There were 239 traffic stops in the town in November, the slowest month, compared with 3,213 in July, the busiest. Of 1,166 drug arrests in 2011, 911 — or almost 80 percent — occurred from June through August.

While the crime varies, much of it is alcohol- or drug-related, DiPino said.

"The challenge of ours is you have individuals coming to go on vacation and have a good time, and they sometimes forget the rules they follow and obey at home are the same rules they should follow at the beach," DiPino said.

As the recent Friday afternoon dampened into a rainy night, Speigle cruised along Coastal Highway, watching calls come in on a laptop computer mounted in front of his dashboard. As a full-time corporal, Speigle is a supervisor who often responds to the same calls as the seasonal officers, to make sure they "have what they need," he said.

Some calls are easy — a group of middle-aged Howard County teachers making too much noise in a residential neighborhood; a local woman in a spat with her husband.

Others are more difficult. In the past two months, four deaths have rocked the town.

A 22-year-old New York man was found dead in Isle of Wight Bay after he was last seen at a local bar. A 26-year-old Howard County man was found dead after a fall from a hotel balcony. A 22-year-old Towson University student from Howard County was struck and killed by a drunken driver on Coastal Highway, and a 15-year-old girl was struck by a car and killed trying to cross the town's main traffic thoroughfare.

More routine calls also can be tough — tamping down raucous parties or stopping drunken drivers before they hurt someone, police said.

On one call, seasonal officer Brian Haluska, a recent Washington College graduate from New Jersey in his second summer stint with the department, moved his large frame in front of a drunken Baltimore man who had caught his attention after screaming at another man in front of a local bar.

The man told Haluska it was just a misunderstanding. Haluska told him to chill out and head back to his hotel.

"I've learned a lot," Haluska said of his seasonal experience, which he's hoping will help him get a full-time police job. "All the full-timers are really good at helping us, keeping us safe, making sure we're using what we learned in the academy."

This summer's crop of seasonals is strong, Speigle said, including Rachel Harman, who at 27 is older than most of her peers.

Harman graduated from Liberty High School in Sykesville in 2003, then enlisted and served in the Navy, mostly in Japan, for four years. When she returned in 2007, she moved to Federal Hill and began taking forensic science classes at the University of Baltimore and took an interest in law enforcement.

After finding the Ocean City seasonal program, she moved to town, and last month completed the department's four-week academy course at Wor-Wic Community College. Just a few weeks into the new gig, Harman said she hopes to parlay her seasonal experience into a full-time position with the department.

When she began patrolling, she encountered a learning curve, but her military experience helped, she said. She had been to Ocean City many times on vacation, but policing the town gave her a "totally different perspective," she said.

"They go out and deal with a lot more than just partyers and drunks," she said of her full-time colleagues. "They do a lot of legit police work."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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