Ocean City police officials did not undertake the sort of internal investigation that experts say is the best way to get to the truth of what happened and decide if training, discipline or other action is needed — a decision that comes as law enforcement agencies across the country engage in introspection amid increased scrutiny of policing and its impact, especially on communities of color.
The town’s mayor, Rick Meehan, Police Chief Ross C. Buzzuro and other officials did not respond to requests for comment. The department provided some information in letters of response to requests for records from The Washington Post, but it’s unclear whether the town changed any policies or practices in the wake of the incidents.
The June encounters, sparked over allegations that the teens were vaping, generated questions about whether officers should do more to de-escalate confrontations before resorting to force.
The teens scheduled to appear in court Monday face charges including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault. A law firm representing both, headed by Baltimore-based attorney William H. “Billy” Murphy, alleges the officers used unnecessary force and has notified Ocean City that clients plan to sue for more than $1 million in physical and mental damages. Another teen was found guilty this month of resisting or interfering with an arrest; another pleaded guilty and received probation before judgment, court records show.
Requests from The Post for records documenting Ocean City’s reviews of the force used against the teens were denied. Those with questions about the officers’ actions say that denial — occurring against a backdrop of heightened mistrust in policing — undermines state lawmakers’ efforts to bolster accountability this year with a package of measures that included increased transparency.
Carl Snowden, a longtime civil rights activist who helped organize a rally in Annapolis shortly after the incidents, said he and others have chartered a bus to attend Monday’s trials and protest what they see as a lack of openness and accountability.
“I think they thought, ‘Say nothing, do nothing, and they will go away,’ ” he said. “Well, they’re in for a rude awakening because not only are we not going anywhere, we’re coming back.”
In court filings ahead of their trials Monday, a lawyer for Taizier Griffin and Brian Anderson called for the dismissal of all charges.
Griffin had traveled to Ocean City from his home in Cecil County, Md., on June 6 to celebrate his high school graduation when an arrest report says an officer saw Griffin vaping, stopped him and asked for ID. The report states that there was a scuffle and that Griffin, then 18, yelled that he was going to kill the officers.
Video taken by Griffin’s friend starts as he is facing officers with his hands up. 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.
Six days later, Anderson, then 19, was celebrating Senior Week with friends from Harrisburg, Pa. He was vaping on the boardwalk and received a warning, according to a police report. When an officer saw him vaping again and asked for identification, Anderson refused and tried to leave, the report says.
Video taken by a bystander doesn’t include that interaction. But it shows an officer kneeing Anderson hard in the rib cage as officers pin him face down on the boardwalk. An officer can be heard saying, “Stop resisting.” During the encounter, four of Anderson’s friends shouted at and scuffled with police. One was hit with a Taser; he and three others also ended up in handcuffs.
Ocean City officials have declined to release other videos of the incidents on the grounds that doing so would interfere with active investigations.
As videos taken by people on the boardwalk spread quickly across social media, top state officials expressed concern. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said then that he saw one of the videos and found it “disturbing.” Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) said on Twitter that he was “deeply concerned” and added that he had “shared that concern with the appropriate law enforcement agencies.”
Within days of the incidents, Meehan appeared to have made up his mind about the officers’ actions. “They haven’t done anything wrong,” he told The Post. He said then that he couldn’t comment while an internal review was underway, “other than the fact that we’re going to cooperate with all the inquiries, we’re going to be transparent, and we’re looking to resolve this issue just as much as everybody else is.”
In September, Meehan told U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s (D) office in an email, in response to the office’s request for an update, that the department “was contacted by the FBI who had been asked to conduct an inquiry into both use of force matters.” Meehan wrote that town officials had “recently learned that the FBI determined neither case rose to the level of a Federal Civil Rights Violation and that its inquiry is now closed,” according to a copy of the email obtained by The Post and previously reported by the Maryland Coast Dispatch.
The mayor’s email said “a thorough multi-level OCPD internal review” had concluded the officers’ uses of force were reasonable and within policy.
Records of internal investigations of alleged police brutality and other misconduct became much more accessible in October as “Anton’s Law,” passed this year by the state legislature, went into effect, making such records no longer confidential “personnel” information.
But in denying requests from The Post for records of all internal investigations or reviews, department officials said that no investigations were done because routine use-of-force reviews flagged no potential policy violations. The department said the use-of-force reviews were only routine performance evaluations, which did not consider discipline or amount to investigations.
During a routine use-of-force review, an officer who uses force first documents it in a report, according to department procedures posted on its website. Then the officer’s chain of command and the department’s Office of Professional Standards review the report and sign off on whether the force complied with policy.
“The reviews are used for training. No discipline is noted in a use of force review,” Ocean City police Lt. Frank Soscia wrote to The Post, denying its request for records of the reviews. “If discipline may be needed related to a use of force, an internal affairs file is opened … the matter is investigated, and a conclusion reached.”
Lawmakers and advocates who pushed for Anton’s Law this year objected to the city’s refusal to release information.
“It’s unacceptable and inappropriate given the legislation that we passed,” said Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery).
Acevero said law enforcement agencies for years have rebuffed the General Assembly’s attempts to provide transparency and accountability.
David Rocah, the senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, also criticized the department’s refusal.
“I don’t know what they were thinking or who’s advising them, but they’re as wrong as they could possibly be,” Rocah said. “I mean it’s just ridiculous.”
Rocah said the department should have conducted a full administrative investigation on the incidents rather than a standard use-of-force review.
“One would hope that some activity of an officer that results in significant public concern would then prompt some soul searching by the department to say, was this proper or not?” Rocah said. “Maybe it’s proper, and then the department should explain to the public why it was proper and why the outrage is misplaced. And maybe it isn’t proper.”
The FBI declined to confirm the existence or closure of an inquiry in Ocean City. In a statement about such inquires provided by spokeswoman Tina Jagerson, the agency said it “would open an investigation when there are credible allegations of a violation of federal civil rights statutes.”
Not every referral or complaint the FBI looks into results in the opening of an investigation, and the bar for attempting to prove an officer deserves federal punishment is extremely high. A study of more than 13,000 complaints about officers submitted to the Justice Department over 20 years, conducted by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2016, found that no charges were filed in 96 percent of them.
“While we cannot speak for local law enforcement,” the FBI’s statement said, “generally, local, state and tribal partners will follow their own processes to conduct internal investigations to determine violations of department policy.”
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, said a routine use-of-force review is no substitute for an administrative investigation in response to a complaint of excessive force. And he said it would be inappropriate for a local department to forgo its own investigation just because federal or local prosecutors decline to pursue criminal charges.
“The failure to do so is just an abdication of responsibility and an abdication of the public trust, and it puts people seriously at risk,” Futterman said.
The question of whether to criminally charge an officer is very different from the questions faced by a town or police department, he said. “You’ve got every reason in the world to investigate to see, should the officer be disciplined? Should the officer be trained? Should the officer be fired?”
Ocean City police have not yet responded to a request this month from The Post for records of a department review performed last year after a police lieutenant grabbed a White man shouting insults at officers and punched him in the face. Officials have said the punch was within policy.