ANNAPOLIS – In 2001, the after-hours life at Ocean City’s 45th Street Village and its two alcohol-free, late-night clubs was “out of control.”
There were brawls, discarded bottles of alcohol, weapons and illegal drugs inside cars. Hundreds of club patrons were inebriated and fearless of police.
“What I saw at 45th Street Village was quite different than anything I’ve ever experienced in 16 years of law enforcement,” Police Chief Bernadette Dipino, then a patrol officer, told the Town Council during an emergency meeting July 4, 2001.
“This is out of control.”
Ocean City responded with a 2:30 a.m. curfew. A Capital News Service analysis of police crime data shows that curfew and other efforts since then have been successful in lessening, but not eliminating, problems around underage nightclubs.
For example, at 45th Street Village, the number of calls police received regarding assaults declined nearly 50 percent in 2002 and another 88 percent in 2003.
Calls about drug possession and sales dropped 79 percent in 2002, while calls for disorderly behavior declined 88 percent from 2001-03.
And, after police received four calls about brandished weapons and one for a stabbing in 2001, there were no calls for serious crimes in 2003.
Problems started at 45th Street Village in 2000.
Most bars and nightclubs then closed at 2:30 a.m. until Life, an all-ages club, opened to serve patrons from 2 to 6 a.m.
Police responded to three calls about reported drug possession at Life in 2000, according to the CNS analysis.
When Club 45, another after-hours dry club for patrons aged 15 to 20, opened nearby in time for the next summer, the situation worsened.
Young patrons came from miles away to sell and buy drugs and drank liquor straight from the bottle in their cars before entering the dry club, police found.
Danny Robinson, who owned Life, told The Associated Press that summer that Club 45’s owners “were basically attracting criminals” — police made more than 160 arrests at Life and Club 45 between April and June 2001.
Overall that year, police received 15 calls for reported assaults at 45th Street Village and its nightclubs and 38 drug-related calls — about one out of every 12 drug-related calls overall.
About half of those 38 calls came between 2:30 and 6 a.m., when there was such blatant drug use that DiPino sometimes saw crack cocaine sitting in plain view on dashboards.
“It was pretty brazen,” she said in an interview this week. “It was a horrendous situation…We were really concerned that something bad was going to happen.”
Inside the clubs the clientele ranged from rowdy teens to drunken middle-aged men, which James Mathias, Ocean City’s mayor, called “a real mix for havoc.”
The city responded, adopting the curfew for clubs. It effectively shut down Life and has cost Ocean City economically, but it eventually halted most problems at 45th Street Village.
But officials have not relaxed.
Club 45 was shut down for a day in September 2002 when police saw kids younger than 15 inside and again a few months later after three fights broke out there.
The town manager in July 2002, met with owners of H2O, another underage club on the south end of the island, after undercover officers older than 20 were illegally admitted.
Club 45 closed before the summer of 2004 because of a legal dispute. H2O and H2O-2 are now the only under-age clubs operating, with their share of crime.
Last year, police responded to calls for one drug possession, four assaults and 14 reports of disorderly behavior at H2O.
But the atmosphere around H2O and H2O-2 is far safer than it was at 45th Street Village, DiPino said. Officers often work the doors and do not admit kids who appear drunk, and managers are urged to contact police when problems arise.
The 14 disorderly calls are “not too bad for having thousands and thousands of kids there over the summer,” DiPino said. “I think they’re (under-age clubs) a good thing…Kids need a place to go.”
With more than 4 million tourists flocking to Ocean City every summer, including hordes of teens, officials know they must continue to monitor under-age clubs.
“It looks to me at this moment,” Mathias said, “that the ordinance and (club) management appears to be working. But we stay tuned.”