Serious crime was up in Ocean City last month, and pants were down. So, too, were tourism revenues.
Insisting there was a connection — that low-riding pants are bad for business and public safety — Ocean City Council member Brent Ashley wants to ban sagging pants and shorts on Maryland’s most popular beachfront boardwalk.
“We have to change the perception of Ocean City,” Ashley said one recent afternoon. He sounded utterly urgent, although he acknowledged that a rash of violent incidents last month, including stabbings and a nonfatal shooting, haven’t been repeated.
Visitors are returning in increasing numbers as the weather has improved, and most aren’t sporting droopy drawers, a style that spread years ago from prisons to mainstream youth culture via hip-hop.
“It’s more of a problem in June,” Ashley said. But unless the council passes an anti-sagging ordinance, he warned, the look will be back next June, when Ocean City is overrun by high school students for Senior Week.
“If you dress like a thug and think like a thug,” said Ashley, 62, “chances are you’re going to act like a thug.”
His crusade to force young, male visitors to pull up their pants and shorts — “to turn this into Maryland’s first crack-free city,” he cracked — has the American Civil Liberties Union on edge and has led to much hand-wringing at City Hall.
The Ocean City Council president told him to stop stirring the sand. The city solicitor told him a ban might be unconstitutional, even if more than a dozen jurisdictions around the country have introduced laws to govern waistband levels, including, just last week, Wildwood, N.J. The mayor told him there were less-controversial ways to address public safety and perception concerns.
“I understand he wants to have a discussion about public decency,” Mayor Richard W. Meehan said in an interview. “But I’m not a big proponent of his idea. I don’t personally approve of that look, but I don’t really know if stereotyping a certain type of dress as being the cause of problems is really fair or the proper way to go.”
Ashley is pressing on with his proposal — or trying to, anyway. He keeps asking the council to schedule a formal discussion about his idea, he said, and the council president keeps leaving it off the agenda.
“I just want to take some action to change the environment,” said Ashley, a former Chamber of Commerce president who has lived in Ocean City year-round since the 1970s. “But I can’t even get the town to discuss it. Why wouldn’t any elected official in Ocean City want more decency and dignity on our boardwalk, our crown jewel?”
He sighed, then smiled, then reeled off a series of one-liners.
“We can’t let this fall through the cracks,” he said. “We’ve gotta get behind this. We’ve gotta make sure a family vacation here what it’s cracked up to be.”
In the lobby at City Hall, two large lithographs depict Ocean City a century ago, when men and boys wore tops and tightfitting shorts and women and girls wore long dresses, even in the water. “Times have changed,” the mayor said.
One constant: Ocean City’s popularity. The town attracts about 8 million visitors each year, becoming Maryland’s second-largest city on its busiest summer days, when the population swells to about 250,000.
The visitation cycle never changes: Kids on graduation trips come in May and June, then come the families. Crime rates in most categories peak every June, according to Ocean City police data, then drop as the demographics shift.
What made this year different was a June 29 incident in which two people were shot in a late-night altercation near a motel pool. There hadn’t been a comparable crime in nearly a decade, said police spokeswoman Lindsay O’Neal.
The shooting came two weeks after a multiple stabbing and several other violent incidents.
The crime “gets worse every year,” said Ashley, a former motel and vacation-rental owner. This June, he said, he made sure not to walk on the boardwalk after 10 p.m. “I didn’t feel safe. . . . People here don’t want big-city problems. We should be selling fantasy and fun, not crimes.”
“Those were isolated incidents,” Mayor Meehan said. Ocean City does not have a crime problem, “and that’s not by accident,” he said.
Ocean City has 104 year-round police officers, plus about 100 seasonal officers. A veteran Baltimore police commander, Ross Buzzuro, took over as Ocean City’s police chief this month, and there were no major incidents over the Fourth of July holiday, when the town was packed. “This is a very safe place,” Meehan said.
One afternoon last week, the boardwalk was bustling with families. Teenagers flirted. Parents shopped. Children squealed. Everybody gorged on Thrasher’s boardwalk fries and stopped at Dumser’s Dairyland for a scoop of nostalgia.
Saggy pants and shorts were in such short supply that it took a walk to the south end of the boardwalk to spot a single offender. There stood Richard Belote near the Life-Saving Station Museum, his cargo shorts hanging on to his buttocks for dear life. His underwear was covered by an extra-large, extra-long Allen Iverson jersey.
“They’re not that low,” he said of his shorts.
The idea of a fatwa on low-hanging pants sounds absurd, said Belote, 21, of Rehoboth Beach, Del. “I don’t think they need that law,” he said. “They can’t say I’m a thug just because of what I’m wearing.”
Two loud pops rang across the boardwalk. Belote looked up. No worries: They were from the arcade, where kids were trying to win Smurfs dolls in a balloon race. He lit a cigarette and headed back up the boardwalk, past a restaurant called Sandy Bottoms, past a mother pushing her infant daughter in a stroller.
The woman, Lyn Riggins of Severna Park, didn’t look twice at Belote’s outfit. “I think when you’re on the boardwalk,” Riggins said, “anything goes.”
Ann McDermott, a full-time resident and longtime retiree, sees it differently. “Sometimes, their belt is below their cheeks,” McDermott said. “It’s pretty bad.” She supports the idea of forcing people to pull up their pants. “Now, whether their civil liberties are infringed upon is a another thing,” she said.
More than a dozen jurisdictions around the country have outlawed low-riding pants. But in 2009, a Palm Beach County, Fla., judge ruled that a Riviera Beach saggy-pants ban was unconstitutional.
The ACLU is monitoring the progress of the Ocean City proposal but says it has a more pressing concern: the decency ordinance that went into effect last Tuesday in Wildwood, N.J. That law includes a ban on pants, shorts, skirts and swimsuits that hang more than 3 inches below the waistline. Violators can be fined $25 to $200 and sentenced to community service.
“The courts have said we can express ourselves through our appearance and what we wear,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, which is considering litigation to challenge the ban. “Wildwood has no right to act like the fashion police.”
In Ocean City, the texts, e-mails and phone calls that Ashley has fielded about his proposal have been almost unanimously supportive, he said. An editorial in the local newspaper backed a broad decency ordinance for Ocean City.
Every afternoon, Ashley said, he walks the entire two-and-a-half-mile boardwalk. And every day, he said, he is repulsed by the way some people wear their pants.
“I love Ocean City,” he said as he walked in his high-riding dad jeans. “This is my town. I just want to be able to say to people that have been scared away: Come back.”