Just months after they passed a sweeping police reform package into law, Maryland lawmakers once again faced calls for change Monday as videos of Ocean City police using force on young Black men went viral.
Top legislative leaders issued statements that pointed to the necessity of the reform bills — though major pieces of the legislation won’t go into effect for more than a year.
The Ocean City videos “underscore the urgency of the police reform legislative package passed last Session, and the need to implement those reforms purposely with fidelity,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said in a statement.
A series of videos captured two separate incidents. One shows a police officer kneeing a 19-year-old man who is crouched on the ground on Ocean City’s Boardwalk. As a large crowd formed around the scene, officers confronted several more people and appeared to use a Taser on another man.
Ocean City police said in a statement that officers had observed a “large group vaping on the Boardwalk” and went on to arrest four people, all of whom were released on their own recognizance.
“Our officers are permitted to use force, per their training, to overcome exhibited resistance,” the department said in a statement. “All uses of force go through a detailed review process. The uses of force from these arrests will go through a multi-level examination.”
Video of a previous incident in Ocean City shows an officer tasing a Black man who is surrounded by police and has his hands raised. As the police commanded the man to get on the ground, he moved his hand toward the strap of his backpack and an officer immediately used a Taser on him, the video shows.
Another video appears to show police “hogtying” the man, who fell to the ground after police used the Taser. Delmarva Now identified the video as showing a June 6 arrest.
“The video from this weekend in Ocean City is deeply disturbing,” House Speaker Adrienne Jones said in a statement on social media.
“Each of these actions is why the Maryland General Assembly passed police reform this year,” Jones said. “I urge Ocean City officials to make review of this incident a top priority, dismiss the overzealous charges against this young man and reform or retrain officers on use of force immediately.”
Shore lawmakers defended the police officers’ actions.
Delegate Wayne Hartman (R-Wicomico & Worcester counties) said the videos don’t show the whole story. The Ocean City Town Council asks police to enforce local ordinances strictly to keep behavior on the Boardwalk under control, he said.
“To make a decision from just seeing a video I think is unfortunate,” Hartman said.
“I know that both of these cases are very active investigations and they’re going to be looked at very closely, but to make a decision to say that someone overreacted I think is very premature at this point.”
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Somerset, Worcester & Wicomico counties) pointed to the fact that some of the men shown in the first video now face a variety of charges, including assault and resisting arrest.
“The individuals were informed of the smoking and vaping prohibition on the Boardwalk, and their follow-up violent actions led to their arrest,” Carozza said in a statement. “These are the facts.”
Carozza also said she participated in a lengthy ride-along with Ocean City police on Sunday and watched officers handle multiple incidents.
“In all of these incidences, I personally observed the OCPD officers and public safety aides handled themselves with professionalism as they worked to diffuse and resolve the situation at hand,” she said.
Democrats in the legislature pushed for major police reform bills during the 2021 session, following up on calls for change after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.
With the passage of the reforms, Maryland became the first state in the nation to repeal its Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which had created enhanced due process rights for officers facing internal discipline.
The law that replaced the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights created a complex new network of disciplinary procedures that involve civilians more heavily. That new process won’t go into effect until July 2022.
Other new laws mandated the use of body cameras by 2025, created a system to identify and retrain officers who are likely to use excessive force, and made certain police disciplinary records accessible to the public for the first time.
The bills survived weeks of debate in the House and Senate, but Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed several shortly before the end of the session. Democrats quickly rallied to override the vetoes and pass the bills into law without Hogan’s support.
Hogan said in his veto message that the bills would hurt police morale.
“They will result in great damage to police recruitment and retention, posing significant risks to public safety throughout our state,” Hogan said.
Hogan told a WBAL reporter Monday that Ocean City Police had assured Maryland State Police leaders that an investigation is underway.
“It didn’t look terrific from the little clip that we saw,” Hogan said. “I don’t know the circumstances that led up to that or exactly what happened, so I’d rather not speak out without getting all the facts and seeing the entire incident.”
Other top Maryland officials condemned the actions shown in the videos.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2022, asked Attorney General Brian Frosh to investigate.
Frosh said in a tweet that he was “deeply concerned” about the actions shown in the videos and that he had shared those concerns with the “appropriate law enforcement agencies.”
Frosh’s tweet came after Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called for an investigation.
The NAACP Maryland State Conference scheduled a press conference for Wednesday afternoon in Annapolis.
State conference President Willie Flowers called for the officers involved in the kneeing incident to be removed from their posts until an investigation is complete.
Flowers said the video is “disturbing, appalling and flies in the face of all the work leaders, community organizers, law enforcement and anyone concerned about police reform in the state of Maryland.”
Madeleine O’Neill covers the Maryland State House and state issues for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @maddioneill