Two videos that popped up on social media recently show police officers in Ocean City arresting Black teens on the boardwalk in what appears to be an excessively forceful manner, particularly given that the two separate incidents both stemmed from nothing more serious than vaping infractions. In one, a teen suspect is shot with a Taser after raising his hands in submission. In the other, a particularly disturbing video, another young man is repeatedly struck by an officer’s knee as a group of police hold him down. As one might expect in these fraught times, the videos went viral and suddenly, a lot of people across Maryland — from state elected officials on down — want to know what’s going on in the Atlantic Ocean resort.
The town’s response so far has been defensive. The police department first posted on Twitter that the video was “inaccurate” and that the youngster who was subdued by the stun gun had been resisting arrest, spitting, “yelling at officers and threatening to kill” them. Later, the department issued a news release seemingly exonerating the officers’ behavior: “We are aware of the social media videos circulating regarding this incident. Our officers are permitted to use force, per their training, to overcome exhibited resistance.” Officials then observed that an internal investigation would be conducted as is required for “all uses of force.”
This does not inspire confidence.
First, we would acknowledge that we do not have all the relevant information about what may have happened. The video is damning, but there may be extenuating circumstances. A fair and impartial investigation is warranted. That’s why we would call on Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser to request that Attorney General Brian Frosh bring in an outside team to review the incident. Without such a specific request, the attorney general lacks the statutory authority to investigate the matter. The police department is poorly situated to investigate itself for a variety of reasons.
Second, we would call on Mayor Rick Meehan and others to assemble a series of town hall meetings to discuss the state of race relations and policing with the broader community. Invitations should be extended to the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to share their thoughts as well. Discriminatory behavior is not exactly unknown on the Eastern Shore, and if Mayor Meehan wants to demonstrate that the era of Ocean City as a place unwelcoming to people of color (aside from those employed in menial labor), he will need to do more than allow the district court to sort out the recent arrests. The court of public opinion matters, too.
And third, we would like to see Worcester County authorities acknowledge the need for police reform. Unfortunately, the state senator and two delegates representing the county in the General Assembly opposed the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, which sought to address these types of incidents of possible misconduct. Gov. Larry Hogan did, as well, vetoing the bill only to have lawmakers override his veto two months ago. Holding police accountable for their behavior does not denigrate their profession; quite the opposite. Letting offending officers off the hook when possible bad behavior surfaces is an insult not only to the victims of police misconduct but to the community and to hardworking, honest and professional officers who follow the rules.
There’s little doubt that policing Ocean City in tourism season can be difficult. The first few weeks of June (known locally as the “June bug” season for its hordes of celebratory recent high school grads) is frequently a challenge. Young people are not always on their best behavior at the beach. Notable events like pop-up car rallies have occasionally stretched the department’s skill set with dozens of arrests. Indeed, given that Ocean City grows each summer from a town of about 7,000 year-round residents to one of a quarter-million vacationers, it relies heavily on temporary summer hires, often college students and teachers, to help expand the force — a job that pays around $16 an hour. These can be difficult slots to fill.
Yet things could get a lot worse quickly if Ocean City does not soon demonstrate that it intends to take these incidents seriously. The peak season is just weeks away, and businesses who lost so much during the COVID-19 pandemic should not see their livelihoods put at further risk because no one was willing to hold police accountable. Ocean City spends a lot of money each year to invite tourists; they need not spend a dime to invite much-needed, independent scrutiny so the public can be confident that police officers are held accountable for their actions and that the vacation spot is a welcoming community to all.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.