ANNAPOLIS – When Bernadette DiPino joined the Ocean City Police force in 1988, she had to break up fights every night on the boardwalk.
Meanwhile drunken patrons wrecked havoc in the streets, keeping many families from vacationing in the popular Eastern Shore resort town.
That’s not the case anymore, says DiPino, now Ocean City’s police chief. Ocean City is cleaner, safer and more family friendly — something crime statistics mostly bear out.
Crime was down 10 percent overall in Ocean City in 2004, including many serious crimes, according to a Capital News Service analysis of databases provided by police. But a few severe crimes continue to be a problem, including assaults and rapes, the data show.
“I have seen such a transition. Our town is much safer than it ever was,” DiPino said. “I just don’t see people being as out-of-control as they were.”
Ocean City becomes Maryland’s second-most populous city in the summer, averaging 305,000 visitors on weekends, said media services manager Donna Abbott. Many in the crowds are often fueled by drugs and alcohol and come looking for trouble.
The town’s nightclubs, hotels and boardwalk, as is typical, experience the worst of the problems.
Take for example, Seacrets, one of Ocean City’s most popular nightclubs. Police responded to 42 reports of assault in or near Seacrets last year, more than three times as many as in 2001.
They also responded to 17 drug-related calls at Seacrets in 2002 and 2003, after none in 2000 and 2001 (that number sank to 3 in 2004), and the number of reported disorderly conduct calls at Seacrets doubled from 2001 to 2004.
But those increases, police and business owners say, point to part of the solution. Police are hearing of more crimes as part of DiPino’s three-part approach to reducing beach crime: maintaining high police visibility; strictly enforcing even the simplest laws, especially carrying open containers of alcohol; and, perhaps most important, establishing solid working relationships with nightclub owners and town officials.
Club owners used to fear police because of a blacklist they kept, so the town established a program to train them and their employees in alcohol management and killed the list. Now club owners are advised to seek police assistance often and officers are assigned to work club parking lots on busy nights.
“I want business people to call us,” DiPino said. “We don’t look at (clubs such as) Seacrets as being problematic…When you have large crowds of people, you’re going to have situations occur. It comes with the territory.”
Seacrets owner Leighton Moore said clubs are much safer now than ever, citing cooperation with police and a fear of losing liquor licenses under a strict liquor board.
With 18 bars and hundreds of patrons, Seacrets often has minor problems such as noise violations and disorderly conduct, but serious crimes are down since police established a firm presence and management began installing dozens more security cameras.
“It’s in control . . . because police don’t take any crap and they’re here now,” said Moore, who opened Seacrets in 1987. “The city,” Moore added, “has totally done a great job of helping individual entrepreneurs maintain control of their establishments.”
Hotels are another crime hot spot, but there, too, cooperation among managers, police and the town has established some control.
Police have responded to numerous drug-related calls in hotels such as Carousel, Fenwick Inn and Ocean Voyager Motel, including 12 calls for drug possession at Carousel alone last year.
That number is due to enhanced security efforts at Carousel, one of Ocean City’s largest hotels, said director of security Bob Cochran.
The hotel evicts any guest found to have illegal drugs immediately and Cochran said drug use is down at Carousel, citing decreases in the numbers of evictions enforced and medical emergencies called for over the last two years.
He can’t say the same for other hotels.
“I have full-time security and we’re sticklers,” Cochran said. “We’re more proactive to it than a lot of other people are.”
Police cannot be at every Ocean City hotel, Cochran said. But the town has taken other steps to reduce illegal behavior.
Donna Greenwood, chairwoman of Ocean City’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Committee, noted that programs such as Reducing the Availability of Alcohol to Minors and Play It Safe, an organized series of Senior Week activities, have helped. Binge drinking and using drugs are still prevalent during Senior Week, when high-schoolers descend on the town for graduation celebrations, but participation in alternatives increases every year.
Drugs “may gravitate here in the summertime because of the huge number of people,” said Greenwood, who has lived in Ocean City for 34 years. The town is not dangerous, she said.
Other residents interviewed for this story agreed.
“It is probably more congested but it isn’t more violent,” said John Rozankowski, who has lived in Ocean City for 15 years. “I think it’s a very safe place to live.”
James Walker, who has owned a home in Ocean City since 1977, said that a large resort town draws all types of people so crime trends will mirror trends in other cities.
In the summer, “this is a big city and we’re starting to have the same types of crimes as big cities,” Walker said. “But I don’t see crime here as a threat…
“Take the amount of people here in the summertime and take the crime rate and go look at another city. I bet it’s five times as bad.”
Ocean City Mayor James Mathias attributes the town’s crime figures to the carelessness of large numbers of visitors who are there on vacation.
“A lot of people come here,” Mathias said, “and they forget that you have to use your common sense every day.”
To curb that behavior, Mathias said town officials will continue to work together and take a proactive approach.
“I’ve proclaimed public safety as our top priority,” said Mathias, mayor since 1996. “It’s not hypocrisy. It’s true. We live it.
“We successfully host a full realm of visitors here. We try to make policies that allow all of them to get along.”
That said, don’t expect Ocean City to slice its festive roots any time soon.
“Everybody thrives off of it,” Cochran said. “Two or three months out of the year is when you make your money in Ocean City and unfortunately you have to take the good with the bad.” – 30 – CNS-4-28-05