OCEAN CITY — A different sort of viral video thrust a spotlight on the boardwalk here last summer. In a street brawl, a man is knocked to a bench and cold-cocked. He clutches his face. Two men beat him, and he slumps to the ground.
More violent videos — beatings showing young men, both Black and white — followed, alarming the City Council and threatening the beach town’s family-friendly reputation. Officials called emergency closed-door meetings to figure out how to bring order to the boardwalk after dark.
They brought forth a tough new policing strategy in Ocean City, one that put more officers on the boardwalk and clamped down on offenses from fighting to smoking. The plan has come at a cost, though. Cellphone videos this summer captured the violent arrest of Black teens, provoking national criticism, accusations of racism and notice of lawsuits.
The sharpest criticism has come from civil rights attorneys in Baltimore and activists on the Western Shore. Some went as far as suggesting a boycott, but town leaders are standing by their methods. Business owners report fewer concerns about the boardwalk at night. In fact, the summer’s shaping up to be a banner year for Ocean City tourism.
“I talk to business owners and residents and people in Ocean City all the time. They’ve been praising us for the increased [police] presence on the boardwalk. They’re thanking the police. I haven’t heard really any negative words or criticism from people other than who saw something on social media,” said Matt James, the City Council president. “It sort of makes us feel like that was the right move and confirms the decision that was made last year.”
Attorneys from a prominent Baltimore law firm, however, notified the town of their intent to sue over the cases of three Black teenagers, alleging the arrests reveal a pattern of unreasonable force by Ocean City police. The allegations echo the troubling legacy of racial discrimination at the historically white beach.
Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Ocean City boardwalk remained segregated. (Carr’s Beach outside Annapolis was the popular getaway for Black families.) In Ocean City, Black families could walk the beach and boardwalk only on “Colored Excursion Days.” For years, the NAACP fought in court to open up the town. In 1955, the federal courts ruled segregated beaches unconstitutional, too. Still, discrimination persisted.
President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary called off a 1961 speech at an Ocean City hotel because it banned Black patrons. By the mid-1960s, civil rights leaders recognized progress, noting Black families walked the boardwalk and beaches without incident.
Town officials acknowledge this troubling history, saying they want to learn from it and keep Ocean City a welcome place for all. They estimate 8 million people visit annually; about 7,000 live here year-round.
Last summer’s cellphone videos of violence streaked across social media and caught the attention of Gov. Larry Hogan.
“The rash of violence we have seen in Ocean City in recent days is completely unacceptable. Maryland State Police will continue to support the Ocean City Police Department and deploy troopers for enhanced patrol assistance,” Hogan wrote on Twitter.
Locals offer various theories for the boardwalk violence. By June 2020, the nation had just emerged from months of coronavirus lockdown with pent-up frustrations. Racial tensions seethed across America after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. Ocean City reopened its beach and boardwalk May 9, before Virginia Beach and towns on the Jersey Shore.
“We were kind of like the only game in town,” said Greg Shockley, who owns the boardwalk fixture Shenanigan’s Irish Pub & Grille.
Shockley noticed first-time visitors trying to walk their dogs on the boardwalk; that’s prohibited during summer. Or folks trying to ride bicycles, also restricted.
“People had been locked down for months; they were just getting out again. There’s a lot of pent-up demand to be out, to be free. There’s people chafing under the restrictions,” he said.
Of course, rowdy behavior is hardly unheard of during Ocean City in June, that monthlong celebration of “Senior Week.” That’s when crowds of teens pack into rental houses, with loads of alcohol and little adult supervision to party after their high school graduations. Debauchery ensues — as do citations for open containers of alcohol, drunkenness and fights. In years past, officials have tried to reach teens with messages urging them to stop jumping off balconies, something that’s happened, often with tragic results. Locals nickname them, with affection and annoyance, “June bugs.”
And June 2020 was worse than ever.
Ocean City police report more than 1,000 calls for disorderly conduct that month, a 50% increase over June 2019 before the pandemic. Calls for assaults jumped 40% from June 2019 to June 2020, according to police statistics.
“It wasn’t your regular Senior Week fights, or a couple intoxicated teenagers punching each other. These were beat-downs,” said James, the City Council president. “There were groups of people attacking one person. It was much different from anything I’ve ever experienced on the boardwalk.”
Ocean City police struggled to maintain order.
“Something would happen on one street, and then something would happen a couple streets away; they were almost like chasing their tails,” Shockley said. “They couldn’t get a foothold and get things under control.”
Town officials called emergency meetings to get a handle on the situation. Police Chief Ross Buzzuro, a former Baltimore police commander, issued a video message and promised things would change.
“You will be seeing more officers on patrol on the boardwalk and throughout the town. They will be there to strictly, yet professionally, enforce the law. The kind of behavior we’ve seen recently will not be tolerated and arrests will be made,” Buzzuro said.
To be sure, police commanders routinely redeploy officers as problems arise. The town may send more cops to the streets for traffic enforcement, such as during the notorious car rally H2oi.
But soon after Buzzuro’s message, Shockley noticed a difference on the boardwalk.
“You saw more and more Ocean City police, but you also saw Worcester County Sheriff’s Office. You saw state police on the boardwalk,” he said. “They were much more visible. They seemed to have assigned areas where they work. They made a substantial effort to make the presence of police more noticeable.”
The officers toughened up enforcement, too. Ocean City police report issuing 41 citations for smoking on the boardwalk in June 2019. In June 2020, they issued 241 citations, nearly a 500% increase.
Buzzuro and Mayor Richard Meehan declined requests for interviews. Town spokeswoman Jessica Waters declined to answer questions about the redeployment, writing “our tactical operations are self-proprietary.” She provided a statement instead.
“During June of 2020, our business community, visitors and residents were concerned that ordinances on the Boardwalk were not being obeyed. This included public drinking/open container, smoking and vaping, dog-walking as well as skateboarding and biking on the Boardwalk after hours. Considering their concerns and what they see in their neighborhoods and businesses was essential when strategizing our summertime deployment.
“During certain times of the year, particularly in June, Ocean City sees a spike in crime and disorderly behavior. As we have in years past, our Police Department reallocates officers in order to increase law enforcement presence on the Boardwalk and throughout town based on need.”
The statistics show the strict measures remained in place as this summer began. In June 2021, smoking citations jumped another 80% to more than 400.
Early that same month, 19-year-old Brian Anderson and 18-year-old Taizier Griffin headed for the beach from their homes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Perryville, Maryland, respectively. Cellphone videos of their separate arrests would ignite a firestorm of criticism against the Ocean City police.
The first video doesn’t show officers approach Griffin for allegedly vaping on the boardwalk. It opens with Griffin standing still, with his hands raised, while white officers shout commands. When the Black teen reaches for his backpack strap, one cop fires a Taser at him. Griffin falls; he’s handcuffed on the ground and carried off. That video’s been watched more than 5 million times online.
Public outcry followed and Ocean City police issued a statement defending the officers. They allege Griffin yelled at police, threatened to kill them, spit on them and resisted arrest, none of which happens in the minute-long video clip. Police say they found a “fixed blade knife” in his backpack.
Officers charged him with eight counts including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, second-degree assault and carrying a concealed weapon. He’s scheduled for trial July 28 in Worcester District Court.
Six days after his arrest, officers confronted a group of teens, including Anderson, for allegedly vaping on the boardwalk. Again, the cellphone video doesn’t show the initial moments. Footage begins with Anderson, who is Black, on the ground beneath four or five white officers.
“Show me your hands!” one shouts. “Stop resisting!”
“I’m not resisting!” the teen yells. “Can you tell me what you arresting me for?”
One officer rears back and drives his knee into Anderson’s side, repeatedly. That angers onlookers, and the crowd closes in, shouting at the officers. Three other young men are arrested in the scrum.
According to the police account, officers warned Anderson to stop vaping, but he persisted. They charged him with four counts, including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and second-degree assault. He’s scheduled for trial Aug. 5.
“We’ve seen all over the country that being tough on crime, when combined with poor training, results in excessive force. These overly aggressive tactics simply erode public confidence in police,” Baltimore defense attorney William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. said.
Murphy, who won a $6.4 million settlement for the family of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Democratic state Sen. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore, an attorney, have taken the cases. They since have notified the town their intent to sue over the arrest of a third Black teen.
Cellphone video shows an officer throwing 19-year-old Alex Dixon of Philadelphia, into a tree planter. The video shows an officer first holding Dixon with his hands behind his back before a struggle. In charging documents, though, the officer writes Dixon refused to put his hands behind his back. Police accused Dixon of drinking on the boardwalk and resisting arrest, telling an officer, “F--- you. I didn’t do anything.” He’s scheduled for trial July 27.
Boardwalk surveillance cameras may have captured the arrests in full, but officials declined to show any footage, saying that would be evidence.
“Those people were not arrested because they were vaping. It was the behavior that occurred after they were given a warning,” said James, the council president.
“I don’t think it’s an enforcement issue; it’s more of a societal issue. People don’t understand consequences and when you don’t follow the rules, there should be consequences,” he said. “Lawlessness is not acceptable here.”
Now, the cellphone videos heighten scrutiny of police on the boardwalk and set off a battery of speculation online. What’s happening in Ocean City?
The hot, sunny days are pushing up tourism numbers. Hotels are booked, restaurants full. Some businesses are on pace for a record summer, said Susan Jones, executive director of Ocean City’s Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association.
On the boardwalk one recent evening, police patrol up and down in teams of three; they’re a visible presence. With a clomping of hooves on wooden boards, two officers ride by on horses — to the delight of children.
“There’s a lot more cops than I remember,” says Austin Blakely of Philadelphia, who’s vacationed here for 15 years.
Blakely had seen the videos and been troubled by the teens’ arrests. Police ordered him off the boardwalk to finish smoking a cigarette before; he complied. As a Black man, he feels extra scrutiny, saying any objection can bring trouble fast.
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“Why is smoking anywhere in public a reason to use that force?” he asks.
Walking the boardwalk this night, there’s no sign of trouble. Twice, men pass by discreetly smoking, just puffing electronic cigarettes hidden in closed fists. Once, a man takes a swig from a beer bottle tucked in his pocket. That’s all.
Andy and Heidi Ashlaw, who are white, made the long drive from upstate New York and lighted up cigarettes on the boardwalk, unaware of the rules. When an officer asked them to step off to smoke, they complied. “He came up and was very nice about it,” Heidi said.
By now, the high school graduates have come and gone. Families pack the boardwalk, crowding in for novelty T-shirts, ice cream cones and vinegar-drenched fries. It’s all the familiar scenes of the boardwalk after dark: neon lights, salt wind and sugary air.
Perhaps the summer settled down, or is waiting to explode again. Just off the boardwalk, an artist sculpted a message for all to see. The hard-packed sand offers reassurance, or wishful thinking.
“All are welcome.”
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.