(Aug. 9, 2013) Striking back against the city’s increasing crime profile – and against those who say he has taken too soft a stance on it – Mayor Rick Meehan this week touted an escalation of the Ocean City Police Department’s surveillance and intelligence capabilities as a more measured approach to addressing the problem.
“This has been in the works for a while,” Meehan said at Monday night’s council session. “I think the chief [OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro] will be coming forward with a very in-depth plan.
“I think you’re going to see an intelligence division formed, and formed with the proper training,” Meehan said. “I think you’re going to see an increase in the presence of cameras as well.”
Meehan’s announcements came after intense criticism over what many believe to be the city’s faltering image in terms of crime and crime deterrence.
“I support you, but I do not know if it is a lack of leadership or simply denial that has prevented you from moving forward,” said resident Rachel Fiorello.
Fiorello has submitted a number of letters to the mayor, some of which have been published in local newspapers, including this one, without what she said was a satisfactory response to the “menacing, threatening, and overall low standard of behavior” among those visiting the resort.
Also vocal in the political arena has been Councilman Brent Ashley, who has himself come under intense fire from his colleagues for pushing too hard on his proposed Boardwalk decency ordinance or “saggy pants law” that, in Ashley’s opinion, would reduce the prevalence of “thug-like” appearances and attitudes on the Boardwalk.
But Ashley’s opponents have argued that his frequent publicization of the matter has only served to worsen public perception of the Boardwalk environment, given that the belief in crime, even more so than the crime itself, is a threat to the resort’s tourism industry. That heated dispute continued this week.
“You can keep being negative, but I don’t have to hear it,” fumed Council President Lloyd Martin. “You need to start working for the town, not against it.”
“I don’t work for the town, I work for the taxpayers,” countered Ashley, who noted that he has “significant differences in approach” to the issue than Martin and Meehan.
“I’m not the one committing the crimes,” Ashley said. “I’m the one trying to get you to do something about them.”
Meehan continued this week to characterize recent crimes, such as stabbings, free-for-alls, bank robberies, and a shooting, as “isolated incidents” that “drew more attention than in the past.”
However, he admitted, “perception alone can take a toll.”
“This year was one of the worst I’ve seen as far as things that we don’t expect to happen,” Meehan said. “I think what we’ve learned is that we have to anticipate these problems.”
The increase in police intelligence and surveillance, as pushed by Meehan this week, has been expected for some time. Last year, the city spent $76,000 to include a number of surveillance technology upgrades in the Boardwalk reconstruction project.
While the boards were pulled up, the city finished installing fiber optic cables, as well as switches and servers, to run 10 new Boardwalk security cameras. That number has been bumped up to 12, according to OCPD Public Information Officer Mike Levy, with the mounting of two additional cameras on the Caroline Street restroom project that is scheduled to be completed at the end of the month.
“It’s a continuing effort,” Levy said. “The key word for us here is ‘force multiplication.’ The long-term goal of the project is to have visual surveillance capabilities in areas that we can’t cover with the number of actual officers we have at any time.”
Meehan also suggested that the department will be expanding its use of license plate readers to identify vehicles as they come into town.
“The tag readers give us the ability to identify a potential problem person,” Levy said. “It will give us alerts for suspensions, stolen tags, and outstanding warrants.”
According to Levy, the OCPD will be aiming to set up monitoring stations where officers can keep tabs on multiple locations in real time. Camera images would also continue to be useful in pursuing the perpetrators after a crime has been committed.
“It’s an extreme example, but take the Boston Marathon bombing – even though you had a large concentration of officers at the scene, those visual surveillance images that captured the event were what broke the case,” Levy said.
What goes on in the midst of large events, such as the OC Air Show or Dew Tour, can be captured by camera when officers are unable to keep an eye on the sheer volume of people.
“We have a city that grows so immense in the summer and we have a limited number of public safety assets,” Levy said. “That will always be the core issue.”
However, he acknowledged that there is “a strong concern in the public that big brother is going to watch everything.”
“Any citizen who understands what our fundamental goal is will certainly understand that that is not at all what we intend to do with these camera systems,” Levy said. “They’re going in public areas only – it would be no different than having an officer standing on the street corner. These are areas where we would want to put an officer, but don’t have the manpower to do so.”
“The locations of these cameras are supported by statistics, our officers’ experience and need,” he added. “All of this is part of a plan and will unfold over time as it’s implemented.
City officials have continued to press that overall police activity in the resort is down, despite a handful of high-visibility incidents that have elevated the relative public profile of the city’s crime. Total OCPD calls for service were down 6.3 percent for June. Of these, officer-initiated service was down 4.4 percent, while service calls originating from the public were down 11 percent.
“Citizen complaints are down because our officers are working that much harder,” Martin said. “Clearly, we’re doing something right.”
Comparative arrest data for this year is difficult to read, however, since it has been somewhat artificially lowered by new state laws. Maryland is now allowing certain minor criminal offenses to be dealt with via citation, instead of a full custodial arrest and arraignment.
Many of the offenses affected are drug-related – a category of arrests that made up the bulk of the OCPD’s work last June. The Ocean City Police Department made 505 drug arrests in June 2012, according to its year-end report, almost as many as in July and August combined. That number has plummeted for this year to 236.
But what does appear to be on the rise are weapons arrests, which the OCPD’s latest data show totaled 65 for June 2013, more than double the 32 reported in June 2012. This would, ostensibly, support the theory pushed by Ashley and some others that what crime remains in the resort is of a more severe and onerous variety than the minor drug infractions that have padded numbers in the past.
Regardless of the hard numbers, however, the major fear for the resort is that the public perception of crime, accurate or not, will hurt tourism.
“If tourism money is a concern to the political leadership and the business leadership, then let’s fast-forward three years or so and recognize that without recognizing these issues, and some sort of intervention, tourism will tank,” Fiorello said.
That intervention, Ashley said, has to buoy public confidence that the resort is taking a hard line to improve its image and environment.
“I think that’s what people are looking for,” Ashley said. “You can explain it away with the cameras or what you think the police chief is going to do, but in the end you need to take a strong position yourself.”
“I just don’t believe in a ‘ready, aim, shoot’ attitude,” Meehan countered. “The problem can grow more than it needs to if you don’t take a step back. If you want me to get up and stomp my feet and do my best Harry Kelly impression, that’s not who I am.”
But Ashley was not alone in his apparent suspicion that the camera program would not fix the root of the problem.
“There’s already not enough staff, enough eyes, to keep everything honed down,” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas. She referenced the continuing plague of vulgar T-shirts, illegal bicycle and skateboard use, and littering on the Boardwalk that, while likely not matters of police intelligence, were contributing to the decline of the city’s family atmosphere.
“I know our police and staff are trying their best, but for whatever reason, it’s not working,” Pillas said. “How are we going to start enforcing the laws that we have on the books?”
A major study by the Urban Policy Institute, conducted between 2007 and 2010, found that police camera installations in Baltimore and Chicago had a quantifiable impact on reducing crime. Cameras in Washington, D.C., however, had no discernible effect.
The cost of implementing camera surveillance versus the cost of preventing the same criminal activity with more low-tech methods, the Baltimore data showed, produced a return of $1.50 of police work for every $1 spent on cameras.
However, the study found that Baltimore’s effectiveness was due to a large number of cameras – over 500 – concentrated in a relatively small area, versus the more dispersed surveillance system used in Washington, D.C.