More than 100 people were arrested and tense, sometimes violent interactions between individuals and police were recorded on video over the weekend during an unauthorized motor rally in Ocean City.
The rally, H2oi, was the second Ocean City event this year resulting in more than 100 arrests. The resort town had sought help from six other agencies to assist with crowd control during the gathering, which is unpopular with local residents and officials and has caused injuries in the past.
Those arrested this weekend were charged with criminal and traffic offenses, the police department said in a news release Sunday morning.
Such aggressive enforcement comes at a time when many Americans are criticizing heavy-handed police tactics and making calls to “defund the police." The event also came as health officials continue to stress the importance of social distancing to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
“Our policing philosophy is to be friendly, fair and firm,” Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the disorderly behavior and unruly crowds left no choice but to shift our philosophy and take additional steps to protect our officers and our community.”
Joseph Davis, 17, of Delaware, was one of about 40 people standing on the median taking photos of drivers Friday evening when officers with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police began shouting to clear the area.
As the crowd moved to the sidewalk, an officer grabbed a man walking in the crosswalk, Davis said. “I didn’t like what was happening, so I started recording,” he said.
In Davis’ video, the officer is seen roughly forcing the man to the ground.
Natural Resources Police spokeswoman Lauren Moses said the officer in the video is Cpl. John Bunting, who was in the area as “NRP officers were assisting Ocean City PD with crowd control.”
Bunting was named the Southern Region Officer of the Year for 2020 by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. According to the association, he’s been employed with Natural Resources Police since 2011 and is assigned to patrol the coastal bays and the Atlantic Ocean within Worcester County.
Moses wrote in an email that a use of force review is being conducted, “which is standard procedure any time there is a use of force.”
Davis said the contentious scene was capped off by him shouting profanities at officers and getting arrested. Moses said officers arrested a 17-year-old for disorderly conduct but declined to identify the person, saying the department would not publicly name a minor.
Another video depicts officers tackling one person in the middle of the road, before another individual then jumps on top of the officers. The second person is then tackled by police. Crowd members begin to film the scene, and one calls out “police brutality.” Others taunt and scream at officers.
In the same video, officers are seen spraying a “nasal nuisance spray” at crowd members to disperse them. According to Ocean City police spokeswoman Ashley Miller, the spray emits a skunk-like odor that “naturally fades eventually.”
The rally, H2oi, does not appear to have a centralized structure, leadership or spokespeople.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan has vowed to end the event, previously saying it’s placed the town “under siege and in danger.” To deter people from coming, legislators created a “Special Event Zone” in Ocean City, allowing the town to reduce speed limits and step up fines and penalties. They include $1,000 fines for infractions like racing, skidding and wheel spinning.
Nevertheless, many car enthusiasts still flocked to town, choking roads and causing backups.
City officials suspended transportation services Saturday evening out of “an abundance of caution for our employees.”
Ocean City Councilwoman Mary Knight said she has “nothing but respect and accolades” for Ocean City police and the responding agencies.
She said her issue with the event is the “disrespect” H2oi’s visitors show to Ocean City and its residents, adding that bad actors in the group “attach sexual appendages to signs,” speed down Coastal Highway and taunt residents. She said other car enthusiasts, such as the upcoming “Endless Summer Cruisin” car show in October, don’t cause as much trouble annually.
“If the group would come down and obey the law, everything would be fine,” she said, adding that city officials did speak with some participants previously in an attempt to corral the event, only to see little success without a proper organizer in charge.
Asked if city officials would change anything about their response in the years to come or if residents should continue to expect to see the expanded law enforcement presence every September, Knight said “I truly don’t know the answer to that.”
The official H2Oi event relocated to Atlantic City, N.J., in 2018. Ocean City officials call the group of car enthusiasts that still comes to town each September “a self-driven group that communicates primarily through social media.”
Last year, the Ocean City Police Department received assistance from several of the same agencies they did this year as police said two people were injured after being struck by a BMW and an officer was struck by a rock in an exchange with a large crowd where pepper spray was used.
The Eastern Shore resort town is home to a number of large-scale social events and car shows from April through September, including Senior Week, where recent high school graduates throughout the state converge in late May or early June.
During Senior Week this year, the Ocean City Police Department announced 129 arrests from June 11 through June 14.
Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.