Ocean City Police face mounting criticism this week after two videos surfaced on social media showing officers violently arresting Black teenagers on the boardwalk. In both cases, the initial infraction was vaping.
One video depicts a 19-year-old man being kneed repeatedly in the side by an officer as he’s held down by a group of them; the other shows an 18-year-old man holding up his hands as he is shot with a Taser.
The first video depicts what occurred after officers on patrol approached a group on the boardwalk who had been vaping, which is prohibited outside designated areas. According to police, one man continued to vape, and when officers asked him for his identification, he refused and became disorderly, the department said in a statement.
The second video was taken from an arrest at the boardwalk June 6. Police said officers attempted to stop a man for vaping when he “became disorderly and began yelling at officers and threatening to kill them.” The officers then Tasered him.
The videos went viral and drew condemnation from Maryland lawmakers, advocates and social media users. Ocean City Police said they would undertake a review. The images surfaced amid a national discussion of police use of force, particularly upon people of color, after the murder of George Floyd last year at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
“The video from this weekend in Ocean City is deeply disturbing,” Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat, said in a Tweet. “Vaping on the Boardwalk is not a criminal offense. Black and brown children should not be tased while their hands are up.”
Senate President Bill Ferguson, also a Democrat, said in a statement: “No teenager should face brutality for walking along the Boardwalk.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called on Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to investigate. Frosh responded, saying he was “deeply concerned” and has been in contact with law enforcement.
The NAACP Maryland State Conference announced it would hold a news conference Wednesday in Annapolis, demanding an investigation into Saturday’ incident and calling for all officers involved to be removed from their posts until an investigation is completed.
“This incident along with other videos show a consistent pattern of assaults on African Americans and sends a message that African American tourist dollars are either not respected or wanted,” the organization wrote in a statement.
The ACLU of Maryland condemned the officers’ actions as an example of why officers across the state must undergo training on a new use of force standard that was passed by the General Assembly this past session.
“Disturbingly, Ocean City police didn’t even try to de-escalate, especially over something as minor as vaping, which is not a criminal issue. The amount of force used here was inappropriate,” the ACLU statement said.
Ocean City Police issued a statement saying the department was aware of the videos circulating on social media, and that any use of force would be subject to review.
“Our officers are permitted to use force, per their training, to overcome exhibited resistance,” the statement said. “All uses of force go through a detailed review process. The uses of force from these arrests will go through a multilevel examination by the Assistant Patrol Commander, the Division Commander and then by the Office of Professional Standards.”
A city spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
A cellphone video shot by a bystander captured part of Saturday night’s encounter at the Boardwalk and 12th Street. It shows officers holding one man down on the ground, and then one officer repeatedly knees the man in the side, as some bystanders in a crowd shout at the officers. Two other men in the crowd also are seen being taken into custody, as well as a fourth man whom officers Taser, while the crowd watches.
The men detained were Black.
Police arrested four men, ages 18 to 19 from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and charged them with multiple offenses, including resisting arrest, according to the department.
“I was thinking that this cannot be happening right in front of my face,” said an 18-year-old woman who witnessed the encounter and recorded it on her phone. “I never thought I would witness any of this.”
“I was just praying that nobody got hurt,” she said Monday in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. She said she was visiting Ocean City from Prince George’s County with friends over the weekend; she asked that her name be withheld because of concerns over retribution.
Ocean City Police said they arrested the first man after he continued to vape and resisted arrest. The second man they arrested, a 19-year-old, was “yelling profanities and approaching officers during the lawful arrest,” the police statement said. Officers placed a police bike in front of him and told him to back up, but the officers said he refused and continued yelling profanities while attempting to approach officers arresting the first man.
A third man, an 18-year-old, was arrested after police said officers attempted to “separate the aggressive and hostile crowd and the officers making an arrest.” Police said the teen pushed a Public Safety Aide in the chest while yelling profanities, and then “picked up a police bicycle and attempted to strike a Public Safety Aide with it.”
A fourth man, a 19-year-old, was standing on private property next to “no trespassing” signs, and was told by officers to leave but the man refused, “became disorderly” and resisted arrest, police said.
All four men were released on their own recognizance. The Sun was not able to speak with them Monday or determine whether they had lawyers.
The second video chronicles an incident June 6. In it, a man is walking on the boardwalk and officers are telling him to get down on the ground. In the clip, the man can be seen holding his arms up and is struck by the Taser. As the officers move in, they tell the bystanders, including the person recording, to back up, as they walk to the man who is now on the ground. Officers turn the man over and appear to handcuff him, as another officer tells the person filming to back up.
Breaking News Alerts
According to police, the man had been threatening the officers, prompting them to use a Taser on him. Police said the man “continued to make threats on officers, spit on them and resist arrest.” Officers found a switchblade in his bag, and he was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, and other offenses, police said.
Ocean City’s ordinance describes the penalty for vaping as a fine of up to $500.
The viral videos come more than a year after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparking nationwide protests against police brutality and calls to defund departments. In response to Floyd’s death, the Maryland legislature passed sweeping police reforms, including a new statewide standard for when officers can use force and a requirement that all departments adopt body-worn cameras by 2025. Additionally, the reforms, once fully implemented, will require police misconduct cases to be reviewed by administrative charging boards.
The woman who recorded the encounter at 12th Street and the Boardwalk said she felt compelled to pull out her phone after she heard the young man tell officers he couldn’t breathe, which made her think of Floyd.
“As an African American woman it’s not OK to see my own race treated like that,” she said. “I thought we would learn from George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” who was fatally shot by police in Louisville, Kentucky.
Baltimore Sun reporter Bryn Stole contributed to this article.