Opinion: Arrested for Vaping? Police Treatment of Teens Raises Questions

Officers for the Ocean City Police Department in Maryland harassed a group of teens visiting the shore from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The teens were visiting the Boardwalk in Ocean City to celebrate high school graduation when police approached to address them about allegedly violating a public vaping prohibition ordinance. New media reports indicate the teens had put the vape away. However, police officers kept following the group and began pestering them for identification. Soon, more police arrived, and things became physical, resulting in a black teen getting tased.

Another teen was repeatedly kneed in the chest while being held down by officers attempting to detain the reported belligerents. Social media videos show a different story. Clearly, in one video, one of the teens was tased without lunging toward a police officer. He is depicted not necessarily complying with an order to get to his knees, but the teen wasn’t violent or attempting to flee.

After the videos went viral, reactions from the public were understandably livid. We have innocent teens being assaulted by police officers who overuse their power in addressing a simple public health infraction that isn’t even a criminal act.

At the heart of the issue is that a group of teens allegedly violated an ordinance that prohibits the use of electronic cigarettes and other similar devices in public places, including on the Ocean City boardwalk. However, the ordinance violation escalated to a matter of police brutality against a group of youth of color because the responding officers failed to manage the appropriate implementation of force in dealing with an ancillary public health regulation.

The violation of a public health regulation like “No Smoking” or “No Vaping” doesn’t merit the unlawful policing approach demonstrated by the Ocean City police officers. It’s incredibly frustrating to see innocent teens being attacked for doing something so trivial compared to a violent act or engaging in legitimate displays of disorderly conduct.

The other criminal charges against the teens are incredibly disproportionate to the act of violating a public health ordinance, too. The city communications department’s release disclosing the arrests identifies four individuals arrested and charged with a plethora of crimes. The defendants, in this case, are Brian Anderson, 19; Jahtique John Lewis, 18; Kamere Anthony Day, 19; and Khalil Dwayne Warren, 19.

All four were arraigned before a Maryland District Court Commissioner (a magistrate) for the District Court in Worcester County on the state’s East Shore.

All four were also released on their recognizance pending trial. Charges include disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, assault in the second degree, failure to provide proof of identity, obstruction, and trespassing. The release notes the department is “aware of the social media videos circulating regarding this incident.” The city claims the “officers are permitted to use force, per their training, to overcome exhibited resistance,” and, “All uses of force go through a detailed review process. 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.”

Despite the promise to conduct an internal investigation, concerns regarding the efficacy of the investigation’s findings are understandable given the Ocean City Police Department’s record with excessive force and the mishandling of the situation on the city’s Boardwalk. Willie Flowers, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said that images captured on camera of police officers using excessive force against the four black teens are troubling. Ivory Smith, the Worcester County NAACP chapter president, echoed President Flowers’s concerns by calling for an independent, third-party investigation and a rehash of de-escalation training for police officers.

After the arrests and the circulation of the graphic videos, news reports indicate that the teens were not only traumatized by the violence perpetrated by the police but were also injured and required to seek medical attention, x-rays, and treatment. Before President Joe Biden entered office with promises of reform, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Scott Gottlieb declared a youth vaping epidemic due to the uptick in vaping among middle school and high school-aged youth.

The efforts were supported by advocates and politicians looking for so-called hero points with voters. What ensued was a multitude of moral panics that resulted in overly restrictive regulations on personal habits, a misappropriation of mental health care resources, a loss of business and employment, overzealous personal injury litigation, a spike in crime, and the demonization of youth dealing with nicotine use addiction all over the country.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at the time, were justification enough to implicate major e-cigarette manufacturers like Juul Labs and the large tobacco companies diversifying into smoke-free and tobacco-free alternatives to cigarettes for launching yet another public health crisis similar to the efforts to addict youth, women, and other at-risk communities to cigarettes.

That was the intention behind the public health efforts to further restrict product access for youth and consenting adults. Unfortunately, the declaration of a public health epidemic paved the way for the FDA and the CDC to implicate further the behavior of vaping in other scenarios. During much of 2019 and the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, both agencies and state-level counterparts were investigating and countering the e-cigarette or vaping use associated lung injury (EVALI) caused by illicit marijuana vaping products cut with contaminants including vitamin E acetate.

The EVALI injury outbreak was a non-communicable lung injury that impacted well over 2,000 patients, including adults and youth. CDC and FDA investigators presented the spate of injuries, some that resulted in deaths and severe physical damage, as a direct impact of vaping in general. This involved distributing public health communication materials that failed to differentiate between nicotine-containing and marijuana-containing vaping products, let alone the source of these products or whether they were regulated by state and federal authorities or were purchased through illicit means.

This massive miscommunication resulted in the spread of misinformation that led politicians from both parties and regulators at all levels of government to implicate further the behavior of vaping rather than the facts.

Due to this move, the concept that vaping was a general threat to public health and safety became seeded in the minds of millions that bought into a manufactured moral panic.

The act of splitting hairs and being as specific as possible in the EVALI drama could’ve done a significant service towards the public’s right to know and the approach that many regulators were taking towards electronic cigarettes and nicotine-containing vaping products. As a further result, we now have entire municipalities and states banning, or attempting to ban, the sale of all regulated nicotine vapor products.

The police power of the state, in this case, was encouraged by the rush for more regulation. From school systems to police departments, the push to counter the rise in vaping among youth could easily cross into the enforcement of drug laws and prevention. These policies, naturally, range from mandatory drug tests to forcing children who are caught vaping by public authorities into substance abuse rehab centers or risk potential sanctions that include criminal charges.

This is unethical. The Ocean City Police Department and the Town of Ocean City, Maryland, should be held accountable for the officers’ actions against the four teens who were vaping in public. The police officers should also be placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation into the use of force depicted in the viral social media videos. Public health authorities for the town and the County of Worcester should further investigate its approach to vaping and youth regulations.

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