(July 31, 2020) In preparation for future unsanctioned car events, the Ocean City Police Department and resort officials are planning to use all available tools to extinguish the pop up rallies that have bruised the city’s family friendly image for years.
A towing ordinance, major traffic reorganization, riot charges and harsher enforcement are all on the table.
Last Thursday, the Ocean City Motor Task Force met to discuss past and future actions to address the car rallies.
Mayor Rick Meehan said two factors are in play this year: covid-19 and the event incorrectly known as H20i.
Councilman Tony DeLuca said it should be referred to as the “pop up rally,” as it had nothing to do with the official car event now hosted in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Chief Ross Buzzuro said Ocean City’s dense population, especially downtown, made it a “recipe for disaster” during various car events.
During the pop up rally and Endless Summer Cruisin’, slated for Sept. 25-27 and Oct. 8-11, respectively, the resort will be under the special event zone, which allows for police to enact harsher penalties for exhibition driving.
Enforcement for each car event will be fluid, Buzzuro said, and he primarily addressed the pop up rally.
“I can’t go into too much details, but what I can tell you is that there is going to be significant changes to traffic patterns, not only getting into Ocean City, but while you’re in Ocean City,” Buzzuro said.
This could include traffic redirection, street and lane closures, flushing of streets, choke points and perhaps speed bumps.
The police department will have to submit its plans to the Maryland State Highway Administration for review.
“It’s going to cause major congestion — there’s no if, ands or buts about it,” Buzzuro said, recommending residents and guests to stay off the road as much as possible.
Allied agencies, such as the Maryland State Police and Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, will aid local police in its enforcement efforts.
“If we’re going to take our town back, we’re all going to have to make some sacrifices,” Meehan said.
With thousands of people projected to come to the resort, police, with the help of the state’s attorney’s office, is also looking at using charges of riot to further mitigate troublemakers.
“Some of the activity that we are seeing by the bystanders … can also get reckless, disorderly and criminal in nature,” Buzzuro said. “We have certain laws that can be exercised … and one of those we could introduce is the charge of riot and that boils down to unlawful assembly with a violent tendency to it.”
Despite the nature of the pop up rallies — drivers have struck several pedestrians, though none sustained serious injuries — arrests have been rare because police simply did not have the authority to do so until now.
“[It’ll be a] little different this year when a motorist is removed from his or her vehicle and placed in handcuffs,” Buzzuro said. “That hasn’t been seen before to any degree with the pop up rally crowd.”
One tool that is still in the works is an amendment to the city’s towing ordinance.
“There’s [an increase in the] amount of money one has to pay for a tow,” Buzzuro said. “… Also, if an individual is towed, the vehicle cannot be released. [It can] only be released to an authorized tow truck.”
The police chief said the resort is working in conjunction with local tow companies, and is preparing a lot to accommodate for the planned increase in towed vehicles.
State’s Attorney Kris Heiser said the key was for the police to have the flexibility to respond as needed as events unfold.
“We’ve worked together to identify most common charges that we can use to accomplish their [police] mission in the moment and then also set my office up for success in prosecuting those cases after the fact,” Heiser said. “Cases will be charged as appropriate based on the facts and the law.”
Heiser also mentioned the police department’s Trespass Enforcement Authorization Program, or T.E.A.P., which allows police to enforce trespass violations after hours sans contacting the property owner or manager.
This would also make it easier for Heiser and property owners, as only police would be required to stand witness during a hearing or trial.
As for messaging, acting Tourism Director Jessica Waters said the city would send a mailer to all property owners. It will include frequently asked questions, such as dates, enforcement changes, recommendations and where to find more information.
“We’re also going to offer community meetings,” Waters said. “We’re going to reach out to our local neighborhood watch groups and offer to host individual meetings with the different neighborhoods if they’d like, same with different condominium associations.”
She added the police department would do the same.
Another communication strategy the city will employ is a live question-and-answer forum on Facebook, which the police department first did back in June to address reckless and violent incidents.
The city will also provide outreach toolkits and email blasts to the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, Ocean City Development Corporation, chamber and other partners for them to send out to visitors to underline what a guest should expect coming into Ocean City the weekend of the pop up rally, as well as other car show events.
“We may want to let visitors know what’s in town so we’re not hurting those who wouldn’t want to be here,” Councilman John Gehrig later reiterated. “That’ll protect our businesses — losing that customer for that weekend will probably keep that customer in Ocean City and at that business for a long time.”
Sal Fasano, owner of La Quinta Inn & Suites on 32nd Street, said making sure the city’s plans reach the ears of car rally participants should also be a priority.
As anti-police sentiment rises across the country, Fasano said, ignorance to the new enforcement could cause participants to become even more confrontational with police.
“That’s going to be the biggest thing — getting that message out so that it’s not a shock to them [participants] when they get the cuffs slapped on them or when their car gets towed away,” Fasano said.
Despite having more tools under their belt, Councilman Tony DeLuca said the city could not simply legislate its way out of the problem.
“This puts our law enforcement, all of our public safety and public works staff at risk every year,” Gehrig said. “We need to take proactive measures, and we are, we’re working together to find ways to eliminate the problems once and for all. These are just dealing with symptoms, we’re going to have to deal with the wound directly.”