Public Defender: Ocean City Police Department Should Require Body-Worn Cameras

U.S. Air Force photo

The Office of the Public Defender issued a call Monday for the Ocean City Police Department to implement body-worn cameras following a series of viral videos showing officers using force against Black teenagers.

“Youth, tourists, and Black and Brown individuals generally should all feel welcome on the Ocean City boardwalk without fear of police escalation and excessive force,” wrote District Public Defender Chastity Simpson in a letter to Ocean City Police Chief Ross C. Buzzuro and Mayor Rick Meehan. “Now is the time for decisive action, not just to address what happened last week, but to bring our police department up to the quality and standards of national best practices.”

The Ocean City Police Department did not immediately respond to Simpson’s letter. Simpson is the lead public defender for four Eastern Shore counties.

Cell phone footage taken June 12 showed Ocean City police officers physically restraining and repeatedly kneeing one Black teenager in the chest and using a Taser on another. Four people were arrested.

The teens were initially approached by police for alleged violations of a local ordinance that prohibits smoking and vaping on the boardwalk, eliciting outrage from civil rights leaders and some state lawmakers.

Ocean City police officers also used a taser on June 6 on another young Black man who had his hands in the air, according to reporting from Delmarva Now.

During the 2021 legislative session, the General Assembly passed a comprehensive police reform package, including a bill that will require all state and local law enforcement agencies to use body-worn cameras by 2025.

Simpson’s letter asks Buzzuro and Meehan to take steps to implement them sooner than legally required, offering examples of policies used by the Salisbury Police Department and Baltimore Police Department, which include requiring all on-duty officers to wear body cameras and the mandatory recording of civilian interactions.

“Oversight and accountability of police conduct should not require recordings by private citizens or be limited to incidents where a member of the public provides such documentation,” Simpson wrote.

In a statement issued after the June 12 incident, the Ocean City Police Department said that officers may use force “per their training, to overcome exhibited resistance.”

According to the department’s use of force policy, officers are to “use no more force than is objectively reasonable to accomplish lawful objectives.”

Simpson said that the use of excessive force on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is not a new phenomenon and that her office regularly represents people arrested for minor violations that are escalated by the police.

“What is unique about this interaction is that a private citizen was brave enough to record the mistreatment and to publicize the video,” she wrote. “It has brought Ocean City into the center of the national debate about policing and race relations, and is bringing rightful scrutiny to how our law enforcement officers treat tourists and residents.”

Further, Simpson suggested that the use of body-worn cameras could bolster trust between the agency and the public.

“A swift effort to utilize [body-worn cameras] would promote Ocean City police community relations and show the tourism industry that we prioritize the safety and dignity of our visitors, and will take meaningful action when it appears threatened,” she wrote.

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.