After reading coverage of the Ocean City Police Department’s recent traffic stop involving Delaware State Representative John Atkins, I feel compelled to offer a few observations on this incident and others I have personally witnessed involving the Ocean City Police Department.
As a reporter who has covered news in this town for three decades, and as a former highway safety specialist for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, I have been on both sides of the fence when it comes to asking tough questions or providing truthful answers during difficult situations.
The traffic stop of Atkins, in my view, represents a serious breach of public trust in these officers who have been sworn to uphold the laws and to provide protection for the public against those who would violate them.
The failure of these officers to make an arrest based on the evidence made perfectly clear to them during the traffic stop, and based on what I have read in the detailed police report, raises some very serious questions, not only about officer conduct and training, but more importantly, the intervention (or lack of) among supervisory and/or senior commanders.
As a former chief spokesman for Maryland State Police, I am well aware of the “political sensitivities” of incidents like this, and fully understand the obligation of a PIO (public information officer) to put the department’s best foot forward. However, I feel OCPD PIO Barry Neeb took his department several steps backward in dismissing this as nothing more than “officer discretion” in a case that, according to him, the officers felt could not be successfully prosecuted.
The comments of Police Chief Bernadette DiPino in support of that theory are even more disturbing, and point to the need for an independent evaluation of the field operations of the department and how it functions to help ensure compliance with accepted local, state and federal law enforcement standards.
Any time a high-profile, VIP, or other public figure gets on the wrong side of the law, the arresting officer(s) are generally guided by supervisory personnel to make sure the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed so that everyone’s rights and privileges, including the officer’s, are equally acknowledged and fully protected.
I am very suspect over who knew about this traffic stop within the department’s higher ranks. In my experiences, an incident such as this would have been brought to the attention of the (State Police) superintendent, or the senior on-duty commander.
What’s even more troubling is the comment allegedly made by Rep. Atkins that “he could arrange for a Delaware state trooper to pick him up and take him to his Millsboro home.”
Since when did Delaware State Police provide free pickup and transport services out of state for people suspected of impaired driving? Have they ever? The incident also raises several other questions:
Why was this individual and his wife, also considered legally drunk, left on Coastal Highway, to possibly drive off once the officers cleared the call, or worse, stagger into the path of another vehicle, possibly causing injury or death to themselves and/or other passing motorists?
Where are all the so called “highway safety” groups, the anti-drunk driving coalitions, such as MADD, who have made no public comment?
Where are all the state and federal agencies that fund this department and its law enforcement/DWI patrols? Are protocols being followed?
Where are the law enforcement executives, such as the Maryland Association of Chiefs of Police, and why haven’t they offered their perspective on how their officers handle drivers who fail field sobriety tests with results nearly double the state’s legal limit?
What does this say about the need for police to pay closer attention to the bars and restaurants that hold the parties, such as the Halloween party Mr. Atkins says he attended at Seacrets, that regularly dump significant numbers of impaired drivers on our highways, particularly during the peak summer season?
What happened to the speed violation, allegedly 52 mph in a 40 mph zone, that prompted officers to stop him in the first place? Not even a warning? Seat belt violation? Open container law violations?
Finally, the media, and ultimately the public attention given this case in recent days, demands an immediate response from the leadership of this resort, and public officials who have also taken an oath of office to serve the people of Ocean City.
Although the holidays take many people, including some of our elected officials, away from their official duties, isn’t it time for the mayor, City Council, (one of whom is a retired OCPD officer), and members of the town’s Police Commission to return from the holiday parties and restore public confidence in a police department whose leadership, credibility and integrity are under such intense public scrutiny?
It would help the thousands of other Maryland motorists arrested for impaired driving better understand how they, too, might qualify for preferential treatment, or as the chief puts it, “officer discretion,” on their next traffic stop to avoid becoming a repeat offender.
Chuck Jackson, President
Citizen Advocates for Safe & Efficient Travel