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Public Defender’s Office calls for Ocean City police to wear body cameras after controversial arrests

Maryland’s Public Defender’s Office is calling on Ocean City to require its police officers be outfitted with body-worn cameras after cell phone videos surfaced earlier this month showing officers violently arresting Black teenagers on the boardwalk.

In a letter to Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan and Police Chief Ross Buzzuro, District Public Defender Chastity Simpson wrote that the beach town’s police department needs to require officers to wear body cameras to bring more oversight and accountability.

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“The video of Ocean City police officers tasing, kneeing and restraining Black youth for purportedly violating a smoking ordinance is disturbing, but sadly not isolated,” Simpson wrote. “My office regularly represents individuals who are stopped for minor violations that result in escalated incidents due to police conduct.”

The Ocean City Police Department is facing criticism and scrutiny for its officers’ conduct this month after two videos were shared on social media earlier this month.

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One video showed an officer on the boardwalk repeatedly kneeing a 19-year-old man in his side as he’s held down by other officers. Video of a second, earlier incident showed an 18-year-old man being shot with a Taser as the teenager holds his hands up.

A cellphone video part of the encounter, and shows officers holding one man down on the ground, and then one kneeing the man several times.

The department has said that the 18-year-old had become “disorderly and began yelling at officers and threatening to kill them” after he continued to vape in restricted areas. Additionally, police said the 19-year-old was one of four men arrested who became disorderly and resisted arrest after officers arrested one for continuing to vape in restricted areas.

The videos were met with condemnation from some Maryland legislators and advocacy groups and sparked more furor over how officers handle interactions with Black residents. Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat, called one of the videos “deeply disturbing” and wrote on Twitter that “Black and brown children should not be tased while their hands are up.”

Maryland’s General Assembly passed legislation earlier this year requiring all county-level law enforcement agencies to establish and implement policies regarding the use of body-worn cameras by 2025.

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The Ocean City Police Department is not included in that mandate because it is a municipal-level agency, but the legislation also created a task force that will give recommendations on how smaller police departments could adopt body cameras.

Simpson, the public defender, wrote in the letter that the incidents are part of a pattern with Ocean City police and that the situation came to light because “a private citizen was brave enough to record the mistreatment and to publicize the video.”

“Oversight and accountability of police conduct should not require recordings by private citizens or be limited to incidents where a member of the public provides such documentation,” Simpson wrote. “A swift effort to utilize [body worn cameras] would promote Ocean City police community relations and show the tourism industry that we prioritize the safety and dignity of our visitors.”

Simpson copied Sen. Mary Beth Carozza and Del. Wayne Hartman — two Republicans who represent the town in the state Senate and House of Delegates, respectively — as well as the Ocean City Town Council and the Worcester County Board of Commissioners.

Spokespeople for the Ocean City Police and the mayor did not return requests for comment Wednesday.

Ocean City and Maryland Department of Natural Resources police have faced rising criticism in recent years for how officers handle arrests of youths in the resort town for minor offenses.

Last year, the department reviewed video of an officer appearing to strike a man during an arrest while handcuffing him over an open container of alcohol on the boardwalk. According to The Daily Times, the newspaper in Salisbury, the Ocean City Police ruled that the officer’s action was “within policy.”

Later in 2020, video surfaced of a Natural Resources Police officer roughly forcing a 17-year-old Black teenager to the ground during an unauthorized motor rally as onlookers shout expletives in disbelief. The teenager was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, according to police.

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