Badge, Gun Rewards for Ocean City Summer Recruits Who Pass Intense Training
Sunday, May 24, 2009
OCEAN CITY -- Maryland's most popular beach town doubles the size of its police force every summer by hiring more than 100 seasonal officers -- most of them college students who are whisked through a four-week police academy, then given arrest powers and a gun.
Ocean City's young officers have a lot to learn before they are let loose on the boardwalk with a badge. This year's recruits are deep into the crash course that aims to meet -- barely -- the minimum state requirements for becoming a sworn officer. To meet a requirement that they fire at least 1,000 rounds, the recruits spent four full days at a firing range, pulling the trigger again and again.
"I call them 'video game kids.' The eye-hand coordination is there, but the hand muscles aren't," said firearms instructor Mark Doyle, a retired Ocean City officer. "They're learning."
The seasonal officers, who must be at least 21, are brought on to help police a population of more than 200,000, up from 8,500 in the winter. They patrol for underage drinkers, break up bar fights, stop drunk drivers and respond to noise complaints.
"A lot of them are going to tell us all of these stories -- 'You know how it is, man,' or 'You're cool -- you've been where we are' -- and it's going to be hard to enforce the laws," said Todd Clark, a 25-year-old Marine who has completed three tours in Iraq and is now a senior at Penn State. "But that's our job."
In a recruit class of mostly 21- and 22-year-olds, Clark is referred to as "the old man." Two recruits will celebrate their 21st birthdays in the next two weeks, barely making the age cutoff.
No seasonal officer has fired a weapon while on the job in at least 20 years if not longer, said Michael Levy, a police spokesman who once trained recruits.
In Ocean City and elsewhere, permanent police officers must go to a six-month police academy.
None of the other Eastern Shore beach towns that hires seasonal officers equips them with a gun. Instead, officers in such places as Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach, Del., are given a baton, pepper spray and bulletproof vest.
"There are plenty of full-time officers around," said Sgt. Michael Corbin of Rehoboth's police department. "If there's a situation where a gun is needed, they can get there quickly."
Ocean City hired fewer new seasonal officers than usual this year because about 50 returned from previous summers, probably because the job market is poor. The new officers will complete their course June 6, in time to start patrols just as the beach is invaded by "June bugs," the new high school graduates who arrive in waves every year.
All the recruits agreed that the academy is intense: Most have never been in a fight and didn't know how to throw or block a punch. No one really understood the intricacies of Maryland liquor and traffic laws. Nearly all admit that they were way out of shape. And a handful had never touched a gun.
"I was scared about this part," Jamie Temyer, 21, one of five women, said during shooting practice Friday afternoon. "I'm not going to lie -- I thought I was going to shoot myself."
The recruits are trained to defend themselves and to defuse potentially violent situations. In boot camp fashion, they are made to do countless push-ups and endlessly bark "Sir, yes, sir!"
This week, the recruits will practice using pepper spray -- on themselves, in part to identify anyone who might be allergic.
"We will have EMS personnel on hand," Levy said.
Most nights and weekends are spent hanging out as a group at restaurants and on the beach, and many of the recruits live together. Recruits aren't allowed to drink during their academy training, and current seasonal officers say that when they go out for fun, they stay away from the bars they patrol.
"They're living in a resort town, so if they live together, chances are they will keep each other out of trouble," said Ocean City Detective Shawn Jones, who teaches recruits defensive tactics.
Jones was a seasonal officer one summer more than a decade ago, and he remembers the fear he felt on his first few patrols: "I can just remember being put out there and feeling like I had so little training for the job."
The best training comes on the job, said Officer Andrew Nicholson, 23, who grew up in Fairfax County and is returning to Ocean City for a third summer.
Friday night and Saturday morning, Nicholson drove up and down the Coastal Highway, stopping to help two intoxicated people find a bus, quiet several parties and remind people of the dangers of jay-walking.
About 4 a.m., he stopped by a beach house where soft music and a conversation on the deck awoke a neighbor.
"Hey, guys," Nicholson began, as he usually does. "I know you are just trying to have fun, but we got a call . . . ."