A violent confrontation that led to the arrests of several black teenagers who were vaping Saturday night on the famous Ocean City, Maryland boardwalk, has gotten attention from civil rights advocates, drug policy reformers, and even rap star Ice-T. But the Ocean City Police Department defended the police officers’ actions.
The incidents began, according to a police department press release, when officers patrolling the boardwalk encountered a “large group” vaping, and “informed them of the local ordinance prohibiting smoking and vaping outside of the designated areas.” When they noticed one person continued to vape, the police confronted him and he refused to provide identification and “became disorderly.”
At that point, multiple confrontations occurred. Police said they “attempted to provide a perimeter to separate the aggressive and hostile crowd and the officers making an arrest.” The crowd appeared agitated by the police tactics. Police say one man tried to hit an officer with a bicycle.
One young man was tackled to the ground and repeatedly kneed in the ribs and abdomen by a police officer. The most disturbing moment occurred when a young man with hands raised was shot with a taser while attempting to comply with an order to remove his backpack. He fell headlong to the ground. Police claim he was resisting arrest, but the video shows nothing of the sort.
When the dust settled, four Pennsylvania teenagers were arrested, and viral videos of the incidents were shared more than a million times, including by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and drug policy reform (and vaping) advocate Ethan Nadelmann.
“We are aware of the social media videos circulating regarding this incident,” the OCPD statement says. “Our officers are permitted to use force, per their training, to overcome exhibited resistance.”
Brian Everett Anderson, Kamere Anthony Day, Jahtique Joseph John Lewis, and Khalil Dwayne Warren—all either 18- or 19-years-old, and all from Harrisburg, PA—were charged with various crimes, including failure to provide identity, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, second degree assault, obstructing and hindering, failure to obey reasonable and lawful orders, and trespassing. All were eventually released on their own recognizance.
The incidents happened on the Ocean City boardwalk, a major East Coast vacation destination. Although Ocean City has only about 7,000 permanent residents, the population swells to over 300,000 on summer weekends. Policing those crowds are 105 full-time Ocean City Police Department officers, and another 100-110 seasonal officers who are sworn in with full authority, and get a badge and gun after attending 250 hours of police academy training. It’s not known if any of the officers involved in the vaping incident were seasonal employees.
The Ocean City Police Department has faced criticism for excessive force before. Last year, a confrontation over an open alcohol container led to arrests of bystanders videotaping the incident. The OCPD promised to review those arrests, as they have the current one.
“All uses of force go through a detailed review process,” the OCPD says. “The uses of force from these arrests will go through a multi-level examination by the Assistant Patrol Commander, the Division Commander and then by the Office of Professional Standards.”
The incident wouldn’t have happened if not for the city’s ban on public smoking and vaping on the boardwalk. E-cigarettes are included in the ban, along with combustible tobacco products like cigarettes and cigars. When the law passed in 2015, City Manager David Recor said incidents like the one last weekend wouldn’t happen.
“Will we haul people off to jail for smoking on the Boardwalk? No, that’s not our approach,” Recor told USA Today. “We expect people who visit Ocean City to acknowledge and respect local rules and regulations. We don’t expect to take a heavy hand, but expect visitors to self-police themselves.”
“Don’t pass a law unless you’re prepared to see violence exercised to enforce it,” Cato Institute senior fellow Walter Olson tweeted. “For example: laws against public vaping.”
A major objection to the criminalization of marijuana and other drugs is the creation of unnecessary police interactions with drug users, especially young people of color. The history of Drug War-era law enforcement is one of confrontations, arrests, and ruined lives caused by unnecessary laws applied unequally to white and black or latino citizens.
Many fear that new bans and public use restrictions on vaping and menthol cigarettes will re-energize the drug war. Banning popular products will certainly lead to black market sales, which can’t help but create additional opportunities for police and “drug dealers” to clash.
We’ve already seen a preview of the “menthol-free” future in the death of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a New York City Police officer while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes in 2014. How many more Eric Garners will die if the FDA is able to ban menthol cigarettes?
“Anyone who thinks that banning vapes, flavored ecigs or menthol cigarettes is not going to replicate what we’ve seen with marijuana prohibition, ie, police arresting lots of young people, especially boys and men of color, well, think again!” tweeted Drug Policy Alliance founder Ethan Nadelmann.
Additionally, as vaping of both nicotine and cannabis grows in popularity, the same thing will happen to vapers—especially young vapers who are black and brown. But even small e-liquid manufacturers who continue selling after being unable to navigate the PMTA process, c-store employees selling gray market disposables, and young professionals carrying weed vape pens will have to fear interactions with police.
“If you’re calling for any kind of prohibition in this country in 2021,” Reason editor Mike Riggs wrote in a Twitter thread about the incident, “you’re implicitly saying that the people who enable/do the thing you want prohibited should be assaulted, jailed, and/or killed. Even if you explicitly say otherwise.”
Smokers created vaping without any help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and vapers have the right to keep innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I recently joined the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy