Ocean City boardwalk: Violent arrests of unarmed young men raise questions about policing

Recent violent arrests of six Black teenagers have fueled new calls for better training, officer restraint

Ocean City boardwalk: Violent arrests of unarmed young men raise questions about policing

Recent violent arrests of six Black teenagers have fueled new calls for better training, officer restraint
Police officers on duty in Ocean City on June 17. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

OCEAN CITY — A year before video of the violent arrests of six Black teenagers in this Maryland resort town went viral, spurring calls for reform and demands for an investigation, a police lieutenant grabbed a White man who was shouting insults at officers and punched him in the face.

The Ocean City Police Department said the lieutenant’s actions were “within policy” that day on the crowded boardwalk, where the population swells with nearly 8 million visitors each year, and officers on foot and bicycle are charged with maintaining a “family friendly atmosphere.”

But on many summer days and nights, the atmosphere is decidedly unfriendly, with police — some veterans, some freshly trained — enduring taunts and name-calling from beach goers and sometimes resorting to violence in confrontations over infractions like drinking in the street, trespassing or vaping on the boardwalk.

Records released by the department show its officers use force a couple hundred times a year during arrests that are concentrated in the summer season. Policing experts say such confrontations illustrate the importance of de-escalation techniques, especially in today’s charged law enforcement environment. While limited, publicly available data shows the violent arrests in Ocean City have involved both Black and White civilians, with a disproportionate percentage of use-of-force incidents involving Black people.

At a time when Maryland and other states are launching new efforts to hold police officers accountable, and the nation is paying closer attention to police treatment of minorities, the June 6 and 12 arrests of several young Black men have drawn national attention.

The incidents — in which unarmed teens were shocked by Tasers, held down on the ground and repeatedly kneed in the rib cage — are generating questions about how a popular vacation spot polices its visitors, and whether officers should do more to de-escalate confrontations before resorting to force.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan says that if people obey the law and are courteous to each other, they have nothing to worry about. “We have ordinances, and we do need to enforce those ordinances,” he said. “Our goal is compliance, and if people comply there’s really no issue. The majority of people do.”

But some state Democratic leaders and advocates of reform say the videos from this month provide fresh evidence that policing across the country needs to be reimagined. Civil rights leaders see the officers’ actions as a manifestation of racism.

“Once again, another viral video has shown the world how police harm Black people on a daily basis,” Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said in a statement. “Officers must be held accountable for excessive and unnecessary use of force even when they are not captured on video. Change is not optional.”

People at the boardwalk in Ocean City on June 16. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

Summer tensions

Each June in Ocean City, thousands of newly minted high school graduates storm the beaches for Senior Week. Young people, some infused with alcohol, collect in boisterous groups, roaming sidewalks, staggering in and out of rental houses, hanging over hotel balcony railings. They share the boardwalk with families, empty-nesters and retirees.

It’s a diverse crowd, reflecting a state that is 31 percent African American and 11 percent Latino. Ocean City’s year-round population of 7,000, in contrast, is about 90 percent White. Its police force, which has about 115 year-round officers but swells with several dozen seasonal hires each summer, is also overwhelmingly White, and the police chief, mayor and all seven council members are White.

In a release of data last year to the news outlet Delmarva Now, Ocean City police reported 883 use-of-force incidents from Jan. 1, 2016, to June 1, 2020. About half of the incidents involved White citizens and roughly 40 percent involved Black citizens, the numbers appear to show.

The Kitner family feeds seagulls near the boardwalk June 17. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
Police officers in Ocean City on June 17. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
LEFT: The Kitner family feeds seagulls near the boardwalk June 17. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Police officers in Ocean City on June 17. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

One incident was the punch landed last May by Lt. Frank Wrench, a longtime department veteran. Wrench and other officers were being berated by a young White man, Taylor Cimorosi, after they arrested Cimorosi’s friend over an alcohol violation.

Wrench leaned over Cimorosi, 20, who was seated on a bench. He punched the younger man in the face, according to an arrest report, and put him in a headlock.

In his report, Wrench wrote that he punched Cimorosi after the younger man resisted another officer’s attempt to handcuff him. But video taken by one of Cimorosi’s friends shows Wrench threw his punch seconds after telling Cimorosi he was under arrest — well before officers tried to cuff him.

Prosecutors dropped a resisting arrest charge against Cimorosi, of North East, Md., and he paid a $50 fine for disorderly conduct with no finding of guilt, court records show. Wrench was cleared of wrongdoing, police officials said; this year, he received the department’s Silver Star Commendation for exemplary service in 2020.

Cimorosi’s defense lawyer, Richard Brueckner, says he sympathizes with officers who spend their shifts enduring insults from drunken beachgoers. “But that cannot lead to violence,” he said.

Attempts to reach Wrench and the other officers named in this article were unsuccessful. City spokeswoman Jessica Waters did not respond to requests to make someone available to comment on the officers’ behalf. She directed a reporter to submit requests for information under the Maryland Public Information Act.

A few months after the use of force by Wrench, a White man named Morgan Fisher, then 26, argued with officers who said he had trespassed. Rookie officer Ben Panitch tackled Fisher and punched him in the torso repeatedly as officers arrested him, videos taken by his girlfriend and another bystander show.

Prosecutors later dropped all charges against Fisher, of Stockton, Md.

David Ellin, a civil lawyer representing both Cimorosi and Fisher, has notified Ocean City officials that his clients plan to sue.

It’s not clear how the department judged Panitch’s actions. While Maryland has mandated the public release of some internal police probes starting in October, such records are currently kept secret. And there is no requirement that nonfatal violence by officers be probed by outside agencies.

Jessica Barber behind her sons Tayvin, 16, Kaesaun, 9, and Taizier Griffin, 18, along with their grandmother Carmen Griffin in Perryville, Md. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

‘I’m not resisting’

Taizier Griffin came to Ocean City from his home in Cecil County, Md., to celebrate his high school graduation with his 16-year-old brother, Tayvin, and some friends. The 18-year-old, whose mother describes him as introverted, said Tayvin coaxed him into making the trip.

A June 6 encounter with police along the boardwalk turned the milestone into a potentially life-ruining circumstance.

An arrest report by Officer Corwin Vincent says he saw Griffin vaping, stopped him and asked for ID. The report says Griffin, who is Black, pushed the officer’s arm out of the way and kept walking. The report alleges that there was a scuffle and Griffin yelled that he was going to kill the officers.

Eventually another veteran officer, Joseph Laughlin, shouted “Taser!” and fired the weapon at Griffin, the report says.

Video taken by Griffin’s friend shows him facing officers with his hands up during the encounter. There is no sign of a struggle. An officer tells Griffin to get down. As the teen reaches for his backpack strap, an officer fires a Taser into Griffin’s torso, and he collapses.

The police report makes no mention of Griffin having had his hands up. The video shows Griffin struggling and yelling, “Get the f--- off me!” after he is hit with the Taser, as the officers handcuff him, put him in ankle restraints and carry him off.

A search of Griffin’s backpack turned up a kitchen knife, the report said. He was charged with concealing a dangerous weapon, failing to give identification, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assaulting police officers, and spent 24 hours in the Worcester County Jail.

“A knife played no role in anything that led up to his arrest,” said Baltimore-based attorney William H. “Billy” Murphy, who is representing Griffin. “This incident did not have to happen. And it would not have happened had the police shown proper restraint consistent with their training.”

Griffin believes he was singled out because of his skin color. “They treated me like an animal,” he said in an interview.

His mother, Jessica Barber, says she has talked to her sons about how to interact with police, especially over the past year, after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. But Tayvin, the younger of the two, said he never really thought about it much or took it seriously.

“It isn’t until it happens to someone close to you, you realize this is what’s going on in today’s world,” he said. “I felt embarrassed and humiliated for him.”

Six days after Griffin’s arrest came another viral video, of five more Black teenagers being arrested in Ocean City.

Brian Anderson, 19, was celebrating Senior Week with friends from Harrisburg, Pa., and was vaping on the boardwalk June 12. Police told him it was prohibited. When an officer saw him vaping again and asked for identification, Anderson refused and tried to leave, the police report says.

The video taken by a bystander doesn’t include that interaction. But it shows Officer Daniel Jacobs kneeing Anderson hard in the rib cage as he and three other officers pin Anderson face down on the wooden planks. An officer can be heard saying, “Stop resisting.”

“I’m not resisting,” Anderson responds. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re arresting me for?!”

After the fifth knee strike, Anderson released his hands and let officers cuff him, Jacobs wrote in his report.

Anderson’s friends, meanwhile, shouted at and scuffled with police. One was hit with a Taser; he and three others also ended up in handcuffs.

Two of the teens told The Washington Post said they did not want to comment, and the others did not return repeated messages. “I just feel like they shouldn’t have swarmed us the way they did,” Anderson told Good Morning America.

A vape shop on the boardwalk. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

How to gain compliance

Policing experts, as well as the written policies of many departments, say officers can avoid escalating tense situations by maintaining a mature, professional attitude, not taking insults personally and allowing suspects to retain dignity and save face in front of their peers.

The Ocean City Police Department’s policy advises: “When practicable police officers should ask for and allow reasonable time for compliance.”

One of the first officers on the scene in Anderson’s case was a bicycle officer named Thomas Stoltzfus. It was his second week on the job, records show.

After Anderson wouldn’t produce an identification and tried to leave, Stoltzfus rode his bike in front of the teen and told him to put his hands behind his back, the police report says.

Police officers on duty at night June 16. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
Local officers on the boardwalk on June 16. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Police officers on duty at night June 16. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Local officers on the boardwalk on June 16. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

“I then observed Anderson place his hands in front of him towards Stoltzfus with closed fists. I believed this to be a fighting stance,” wrote the report’s author, fellow rookie officer Nathan Jupiter.

Stoltzfus pulled Anderson to the ground, the report says.

It was the second night in a row that Stoltzfus used force against a young Black man in an incident involving vaping, an ordinance violation that typically merits a citation and a fine.

On June 11, Stoltzfus and two other officers saw a man vaping along the boardwalk and came over to give him a citation, according to a police report written by Stoltzfus. The man became “hostile and disorderly,” the report says.

Stoltzfus soon turned his attention to Robert Banks, 20, of Pennsylvania, who according to Stoltzfus was yelling profanities at the officers. “I don’t have to listen to you,” Banks yelled, according to Stoltzfus. “F--- all of you. It’s just ‘cause we are Black.”

Stoltzfus reported that he told Banks he was under arrest for disorderly conduct. As he and Jupiter — the other rookie officer who would be involved in Anderson’s arrest the next night — tried to put Banks in handcuffs, he resisted and pulled away, the report says.

“Banks turned toward Ofc. Jupiter and assumed a fighting stance by spreading his feet,” Stoltzfus wrote in his report, using language similar to what Jupiter would write the next night. “Banks balled his fists up to make a closed fist.”

That’s when Stoltzfus “initiated a takedown to gain compliance,” he wrote in his report.

Banks could not be reached for comment.

A teenager vapes near the boardwalk. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

‘Disturbing the police’

The night after Anderson’s arrest, state Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Worcester) went on a long-planned ride-along with Ocean City police officers.

Carozza, who lives in Ocean City, watched officers approach people of all races and ages. She said the officers weren’t looking to make arrests; they just wanted people to adhere to city ordinances. “Smoking marijuana and cigarette smoking on the boardwalk discourages families from visiting the boardwalk,” she said.

The lawmaker said she has watched unreleased video of the June 12 incident from the City Watch security camera system and believes the videos posted on social media only show a small part of the interaction between the teenagers and the officers.

“Compliance doesn’t lead to what we saw on June 12,” she said. “We’re just asking for compliance.”

Lachelle Scarlato, executive director of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said she also has seen such video — which Meehan declined to share with The Post. “It helped to ease some limited concern that I had only seeing a limited picture,” she said.

On the boardwalk last week, the mood varied by the hour — and sometimes the minute. Officers on horseback ambled across the sand by the water, on the lookout for trouble. Teenagers wandered. An older White woman strolling with three companions told a group of bicycle officers, “Thank you for all you’re doing.”

The group included Jacobs, the officer who had kneed Anderson.

As midnight came and went, many revelers grew drunker and louder. At about 1:30 a.m., Jacobs found himself standing watch over a group of young people hurling insults at officers from across Baltimore Avenue, which runs parallel to the boardwalk. The officers were arresting a young Black man who sat handcuffed on a curb. They had warned the catcallers to stay out of the street.

“Oh, he walked in the street,” one teen yelled, noting a middle-aged White man who had stepped onto the pavement. “I can’t do that 'cause I’m Black!”

Once the police loaded their arrestee into a van, the crowd began to disperse. The officers mounted their bikes and pedaled away.

In a brief interview the next day, Meehan said he couldn’t talk about the arrests depicted in the viral videos. “There will be a time, of course, when all evidence is released, but right now it’s going through the review process,” he said.

Asked whether any of the officers had been placed on administrative leave during that process, Meehan answered: “No. They haven’t done anything wrong.”

Chasity Simpson, a public defender on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, disagrees. In a June 21 letter to Meehan and Police Chief Ross C. Buzzuro, she called the incidents “sadly not isolated.”

“My office regularly represents individuals who are stopped for a minor violation that escalates due to police conduct,” Simpson wrote, calling for the department to immediately implement a body-camera policy. A new state law phases in the use of body cameras across the state, but Ocean City is not required to have them until 2025.

Without cameras, Simpson said in an interview, the public cannot know what happens in these interactions. Often, she said, clients have described being treated aggressively, including being handcuffed for offenses that warranted fines.

“I think it has been ingrained in the culture of the Ocean City police to react to people the way they do,” Simpson said. “They react when their authority is questioned. It’s like they equate disturbing the peace to disturbing the police.”

Dozens rally in Perryville, Md., on June 16 in support of Taizier Griffin, who police used a Taser on and arrested in Ocean City. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

‘Disturbing’ and ‘painful’

The arrests of Griffin and the young Black men from Harrisburg sparked calls for change last week in Annapolis, the state capital, and in Cecil County, the rural and mostly Republican jurisdiction north of Baltimore where Griffin lives and where a nascent Black Lives Matter Movement has taken root over the last year.

Cameron Malone, a White teenager who organized a march in Perryville, Md., with the activist group Cecil Solidarity, questioned how officers confronted Griffin. “I have to wonder: If it were me standing on that boardwalk, would I have received the same treatment?” Malone told a crowd of several dozen people. “Or would they have told me to put it away and stay safe?”

Top Maryland politicians also have raised concerns. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said the video he watched was “disturbing.” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) described it as “painful.” House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore) said officers overreacted. She called on police to “dismiss the overzealous charges against [Griffin] and reform or retrain officers on the use of force immediately.”

At a news conference in Annapolis, leaders from the NAACP Maryland State Conference and other groups said the actions taken by the officers were extreme and called for an independent investigation, the release of all videos, the suspension of the officers and for the charges against the teenagers to be dropped.

“The trauma these young people experience will be with them for the rest of their lives,” said Willie Flowers, the president of the State Conference of the NAACP.

The leaders stopped short of calling for a boycott of Ocean City but indicated that the idea is being considered.

One of those who spoke at the news conference was Murphy, who has litigated numerous high-profile police brutality cases and last year secured a $20 million settlement against Prince George’s County on behalf of the family of William Green, who was shot and killed by an officer while in handcuffs.

“Everything is on the table,” Murphy said. “We have not ruled out any action in particular that is lawful, and will put the appropriate amount of pressure on Ocean City to comply with the law and with the good spirit of treatment of people who come from all over the country.”


A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of an Eastern Shore public defender. She is Chasity Simpson. The article has been corrected.

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us