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Police, city defuse tensions over college ‘takeover’ hype

(June 13, 2014) Despite some fire-and-brimstone predictions, the anticipated “college takeover” this past weekend failed to live up to the hype – if it ever even existed at all.

What did materialize, though, was a banner showing from police, who received virtually universal praise for a strong presence that many local leaders hope will continue throughout the rest of June’s senior week influx.

“Going into it, you could sense the apprehension, the uneasiness in the community. But as we worked into the weekend, we started to see that change,” said Ocean City Police Department Chief Ross Buzzuro.

“After some time went by without any major incidents, and people saw the police presence, the thoughts changed from negative to very, very positive.”

The OCPD had all hands on deck for the weekend, calling virtually all of its personnel for overtime in anticipation of a deluge of college-age visitors from the DC metro area. Being June, this influx would come when the resort was already packed with high school graduates, who present a law enforcement challenge on their own.

Officers in bright yellow vests were stationed at virtually every street end on the Boardwalk for the evenings of Friday, June 6 and Saturday, June 7. Vehicle patrols rode two to a car, and Coastal Highway also had a strong showing from the Maryland State Police and the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office as well.

“You felt the presence, even if you didn’t see them,” said Bob Givarz, owner of the Alaska Stand on the Boardwalk at Ninth Street. “If the guy stationed outside my place walked away, you knew in a few minutes a bike guy or a horse guy was going to come by.”

“I thought the response was great,” said Will Savage, owner of the Majestic Hotel on Seventh Street and the Boardwalk. “The police just being there cut off any problems before they started. We had no issues at all.”

OCPD data indicates that, indeed, nothing was out of line for a usual June weekend. Total calls for service over the period from Thursday, June 5 to Monday, June 9 numbered 1,285, up only eight percent from the same span over the second weekend of June last year.

Notably, however, enforcement on Friday was particularly intense with 242 of the period’s total calls, versus 150 last year, indicating a strong initial show of strength from law enforcement.

Arrests were up 26.6 percent to 219 – but a quick look through the police blotter indicates the vast majority of these were for disorderly conduct and marijuana, not for more serious crimes. While drug arrests were up 22.6 percent to 76 total, DUIs and weapons arrests were flat at 18 and 23, respectively.

“The crowd seemed to me like the same kind of crowd we had last June,” said City Council Secretary Mary Knight. “I think it turned into a great weekend. The police presence was amazing”

“I’ve been here for a long time, and honestly this was one of the more relaxed ‘senior week’ weekends I’ve seen,” said Councilman Brent Ashley, a former motel and rental owner of many decades. “Comparatively, I think this was a big success.”

Two weeks ago, local law enforcement was alerted to a social media-fueled gathering in Ocean City set to take place the first full weekend in June. The event was promoted largely via the Twitter hashtags #CollegeTakeover and #CollegeBeachWeek, the same marks that had been used for gatherings in Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach, which saw increases in violent crime and large-scale riots and thefts during events that drew tens of thousands.

The buzz around a gathering in Ocean City appeared to have originated with the website partyheadzdc.com, which was not involved with the prior events. But in all instances, the promotion was directed at a young, urban, almost entirely African-American crowd.

This left the city in a tenuous position. While an under-response would open the town up to disaster if the event took off, an over-response may appear paranoid and somewhat discriminatory, given that the only connection other than a Twitter phrase was age and racial demographic.

But several things appear to have worked out in the city’s favor. For one, the promotion doesn’t appear to have drawn that many people – and even if it did, they weren’t here for an event, per se.

“I think they had some people attend, but not in the numbers they thought,” said Greg Shockley, owner of Shenanigan’s and the Shoreham Hotel on the Boardwalk at Fourth Street.

“The police presence, considering what was predicted beforehand, was appropriate,” Shockley said. “I think the police did an excellent job covering the Boardwalk. They handled it the only responsible way they could’ve.”

Buzzuro himself patrolled the Boardwalk on several occasions over the weekend, making a point to speak with businesses as well as visitors.

“The word ‘takeover’ obviously scared some people,” he said. “But when you talk to the visitors, it’s not an overt effort as far as people saying ‘I’m here for this.’ As we’ve said all along, it’s not a sanctioned event, there’s no itinerary, no permits, no headcount, so we’re left asking what we can really attach to this when it’s just folks showing up.”

Given that the resort is already inundated with high school graduates for most of June, any  20-somethings driven to the beach by the social media event would’ve been hard to discern.

Further, despite the perception of the racial elephant in the room, the resort has been playing host to more and more African-Americans over the years simply due to surrounding demographics, and not to any concerted “takeover.”

In fact, the 2010 federal census indicated that, for the first recorded instance, white people comprised less than half of the under-18 subset in Maryland. This was due mostly to rapid growth in the minority populations of the metro areas since the last census in 2000, and the declining birth rate of white populations elsewhere in the state over the same period.

“It’s just the demographics of our area,” Knight said. “We’re not Idaho or North Dakota. We’re in driving distance of most the major metro areas on the east coast.”

The question now is how intensely the city will keep up its police presence, especially during the OC Air Show next weekend.

Last year, a number of high-profile crimes saw many show patrons complain to the city about the type of crowd present outside the show grounds – and caused some local leaders, in turn, to place the blame on the OC Car & Truck Show, which happened to take place the same weekend and typically draws a more urban clientele.

This year, however, the two events are on successive weekends and not concurrent. But the town is still planning strong police visibility to calm fears that some crowds won’t get along with others.

“The message is, and will continue to be, that we’re not going to judge you on how you look, we’re going to judge you on your actions,” Buzzuro said.

“We’re fortunate that this year we have a much better placement of events, but we realize we’re still going to be busy. What you’re going to see is that we’re going to maximize our resources and continue to have visibility.”

Further, the OCPD has received praise in the past several days the demeanor of its officers, which created a sense of security without being overbearing.

“It was great to see the officers and how friendly they were,” Knight said, “just out there meeting people, talking to people, smiling and answering questions.”

Buzzuro himself has been lauded for his hands-on approach, and for orchestrating what is seen as a sharp turn-around from the negative tone that took hold after last year’s June experience.

“It sends the message that there’s a new sheriff in town, so to speak,” Ashley said. “It shows that we hired the right guy for the job.”

“We knew that his background was in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which is extremely safe,” Knight said. “Everything we’ve gotten so far is ‘thank you, please send my regards to the Chief.’”

A number of businesses have reportedly asked the city to continue the heightened visibility for the entirety of June.

“The interest is definitely there,” Ashley said. “Funding is naturally the big question, but it’s worth looking into.”

“I would like to see it, maybe not the extent we had it, but I would like to see more officers on patrol,” Knight said. “I think it was money well spent.”

Even if the cost-benefit ratio on June’s young visitors is not ideal, the consensus seems to be that it’s better than nothing.

“If the seniors weren’t here, there’d be nothing through the week,” Shockley said. “June is driven by the weekend events, and they’re the only thing we have consistently through the weekdays.”

“This month is always difficult, but it’s a problem of success,” Givarz said. “How great is it to have this problem, rather than not being able to get them over the bridge?”

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