Police officers in Ocean City, Maryland, recently tackled a Black teenager. One officer repeatedly kneed him in the stomach. As the incident progressed, a crowd gathered, and police physically brawled with members of the crowd, even using a stun gun on one of them. Four teenagers were arrested. The incident quickly went viral.
There was no 911 call alleging that violence was occurring. There was no riot or hostage incident, either. In fact, the officers involved were not responding to any report of serious crime or community members in distress. They were attempting to enforce an anti-vaping ordinance.
Many are questioning the wisdom of such bans on tobacco products, especially as excessive force is being used to enforce them. Some of the teens involved in the Maryland incident spoke out about the traumatic event in subsequent news interviews. They were visiting from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Like lots of people in the region who vacation in Ocean City, they simply wanted to enjoy a fun weekend at the beach. Vaping outdoors does not pose a serious health hazard to bystanders. The amount of force used by police in this situation, and others like it, simply doesn’t make sense. The damage done to police-community relations far outweighs any safeguard on public health.
For years, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and our speakers have repeatedly warned the public about the consequences of banning vaping and flavored tobacco products. Unfortunately, such bans are becoming more prevalent, despite increasing evidence that they do not work. As we have insisted, these bans increase distrust of the police, particularly in communities of color.
Banning a substance inherently begs the question: how will it be enforced? Decades of the War on Drugs show us that, while Black and white people use drugs at similar rates, Black people are arrested and prosecuted at far higher rates. The viral video in Ocean City demonstrates the same consequences that we have seen from the drug war, a public policy failure that just passed the 50-year mark.
Incidents like the one in Ocean City have a ripple effect on public safety. When people are targeted for violating low-level, non-violent, non-serious ordinances, they lose trust in the police. Then, when violent crimes happen in vulnerable neighborhoods that experience high levels of crime, no one wants to talk to the police. Low clearance rates for violent crimes in these neighborhoods means that more people in these communities take disputes into their own hands, rather than letting the legal system sort them out. This is an intolerable state of affairs that increases violent crime rates, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color.
We have no doubt legislators have passed vaping bans with good intentions, but sometimes they need a reminder about what these laws force police to do on the job. We need police to prioritize building relationships that inspire trust and responding to serious crimes, not hassling people over minor ordinance issues.
Det. Debbie Ramsey (Ret.) served with the Baltimore Police Department and is now a representative of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police and other criminal justice professionals who support smart-on-crime policies.