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Ocean City Mayhem Prompts Call for Law Enforcement Protections Under Hate Crimes Law

Ocean City
Ocean City by air. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo

Videos recorded by onlookers standing along Ocean City’s Coastal Highway over the weekend show a dystopian scene: smoke from burning tires and fireworks fill the air while tangles of police officers and civilians wrestle in the middle of the highway as onlookers throw trash and chant.

“In all honesty, a photo doesn’t do it justice,” said Del. Wayne Hartman (R-Lower Shore). “You really can’t describe what was going on in Ocean City unless you were there seeing it firsthand.”

It was the aftermath of an unofficial, unsanctioned “pop-up” event called H2Oi — and the sounds of engines and squealing tires can be heard even in the recesses of neighborhoods, blocks away from the main drag of Coastal Highway.

Hartman rode alongside Ocean City police officers Friday and with Worcester County Sherrif’s deputies Saturday, hoping to see the effect of the emergency legislation he co-sponsored this year with Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore).

The new law allows law enforcement officers in Worcester County to make misdemeanor arrests during motor vehicle weekend events — sanctioned or unsanctioned — making “exhibition driving,” like the tire-spinning burnouts, drag racing and engine revving subject to fines or even jail time if committed in special event zones.

Hartman told Maryland Matters in a phone interview that the law deterred some poor behavior — especially earlier in the week. But it wasn’t as effective as he would have hoped.

“Unfortunately, most of the night was spent with crowd control,” Hartman explained.

He described hordes of people “moving in mobs … probably approaching 1,000, if not more,” hurling cups, cans, bottles — anything within reach — at law enforcement officers.

“Landscaping rocks were used and being thrown at us,” said Hartman. “Roman candles were being directed and shot at the officers — fireworks going off all around them.”

He said back-up was requested from law enforcement agencies in surrounding municipalities and counties.

“It was a scene that you would never, never expect,” Hartman said.

Last Tuesday, the town of Ocean City was declared a “special events zone.” Under Carozza and Hartman’s law, this applies to sanctioned or unsanctioned events that anticipate 1,000 or more participants, and allows law enforcement officers to lower speed limits, hand out citations, issue fines and arrest drivers.

Additionally, the town issued a local ordinance to allow these vehicles to be towed and impounded.

In a statement Monday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) thanked 16 “allied state and local law enforcement agencies” that assisted the Ocean City Police Department over the weekend. Hogan said that, overall, police issued over 3,500 citations, completed around 2,500 traffic stops and that more than 350 cars were towed and impounded.

“This is not a car show and the majority of these visitors are not car enthusiasts. They are here to disrupt, destroy and disrespect our community and our law enforcement officers,” Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro said in a statement released Sunday. “Our policing philosophy is to be friendly, fair and firm. 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.”

In a news release sent Monday afternoon, Carozza said that she would continue to work with law enforcement and lawmakers to craft legislation aimed at people who come to Maryland’s beach town to wreak havoc.

“I believe we need to allow our professional law enforcement leaders to assess the weekend, conduct their after action review, and hear their specific recommendations for the future with the input and support of the public,” Carozza said in a statement.

The official H2O International event, once traditionally held in Ocean City, moved to Atlantic City, N.J., in 2018. But swarms of people in loud, modified cars have continued coming to the beach town every September.

“These people aren’t here as car enthusiasts,” Hartman said, adding that he never thought the event was “good.” He even sought to mitigate its harmful effects as a member of the Ocean City Town Council.

Now, Hartman says there’s less “motor vehicle lawlessness” — which he credits in part to the 2020 emergency legislation — but he’s seen first-hand another growing problem: a lack of respect for police officers. And he’s not interested in sitting idly by while it continues.

Hartman told Maryland Matters that he plans to introduce a bill during the 2021 legislative session that would qualify police as a protected class under the state’s hate crimes law.

“What these officers experienced was definitely violence against a certain group or class of people,” he said. “And, you know, I think we need to start doing something to protect them. In this case, we’ll be stiffening the penalties and adding additional charges for that type of behavior to law enforcement.”

He clarified that his forthcoming legislation would protect all first responders across the state, year-round, including fire and emergency medical services personnel.

Maryland’s current hate crime statute protects individuals from crimes rooted in discrimination against their race, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, disability and displacement.

No profession is protected under the state’s hate crime law.

Hartman said that the aggressive, sometimes violent, behavior towards the police at this event isn’t new, but he attributes it, in part, to the political climate.

In the wake of 2020’s nationally reported incidents of police brutality, protests have popped up denouncing law enforcement, which have come with calls for defunding, and, in some cases, abolishing police departments.

Hartman’s legislation, if introduced, would likely be at odds with a series of bills introduced last week by members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, including one seeking to limit special protections officers receive under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, among other proposed changes.

Carozza said in a statement that she supports Hartman’s legislation.

“I will continue to do all I can to support law enforcement and make public safety my top priority, especially at a time when the Maryland General Assembly has been holding anti-police hearings in Annapolis and considering legislation that would weaken law enforcement,” she said.

But for Hartman, it addresses years of blatant disregard he’s seen for law enforcement — especially at this local, unsanctioned event.

“This particular group of people have proven year after year that there’s a large contingency of them that just have no respect for law enforcement; have no respect or regard for law and order; and, you know, they come down here and start trouble,” he said, pointing specifically to a 2014 incident reported by Delmarva Now where two men were booked for assaulting a police horse.

“This behavior isn’t new,” Hartman told Maryland Matters Monday. “It’s just intensified and I think we need to meet it with additional assets.”

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