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Thursday, May 30, 2024

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Lawmakers, Law Enforcement Discuss Juvenile Problems

From left

By Shay Roddy

SEA ISLE CITY – After a summer where many local law enforcement officials said they encountered unprecedented, unruly behavior from juveniles and were stripped of any powers to stop it, police, prosecutors, and lawmakers came together Feb. 11 to discuss what to do moving forward. 

The meeting, as unusual for its collective participants as its content, lasted about 90 minutes and was held in a packed council chambers in Sea Isle City Hall, but was not open to the public or media.  

“To our knowledge, this is the first time a meeting like this has been put together, where we had our legislators and our prosecutor, police chiefs, mayors, and other officials in the communities,” said Sea Isle City Mayor Leonard Desiderio, who organized the event, which was attended by about 50 people.  

Attendees also included county commissioners, the county sheriff, assistant prosecutors, and more. 

After the meeting, North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello said there was a discussion about last summer’s experiences, and they also heard from the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office about trying to work with lawmakers to draft legislation to fix the problem.  

Last year, a law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy to effectively legalize recreational marijuana also implemented a new, three-step warning system for those charged with underage drinking offenses, no longer giving police authority to make an arrest, issue a citation, or fine a defendant in an underage drinking case. 

“If you let a bunch of teenagers drink beer without consequences, it’s going to lead to problems, and we had problems. There were a couple of assaults, aggravated assaults, on John F. Kennedy Boulevard, that were a direct result of overconsumption,” Rosenello said.  

For the first time, Sea Isle Police Capt. Anthony Garreffi, who has been in charge of the department since Police Chief Tom McQuillen announced his retirement in December 2021, confirmed to the Herald that a juvenile arrest was made last summer during the Fourth of July weekend.  

The Herald had submitted Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests to the city’s police department after receiving a tip from a member of the community that two rapes involving teenagers occurred on the Promenade over the Fourth of July weekend. Those requests were denied. 

The meeting reinforced the strong interest in juvenile crime, and when asked about it after the meeting, Garreffi said he would have a further conversation with the city solicitor, but that he planned to make the police report from the incident available to the newspaper with the appropriate redactions. There was no indication made if alcohol was a factor in that crime.  

Desiderio said he was not aware of the incident referenced but added, “Once the case is closed, then absolutely you should be able to know what occurred and how it occurred without giving the juveniles’ names.” 

He helped facilitate a discussion between the Herald and Garreffi, who was familiar with the case at reference.  

Assemblyman Erik Simonsen (R-1st) said informing the public about crimes involving juveniles will help get support behind the legislation they will work to get passed, to give police broader power to address these issues. 

“We want the people to know what has happened in order to understand why we’re passing the legislation that we’re going to pass,” Simonsen said.  

Rosenello and Desiderio both said publicly disclosing information about crimes involving juveniles was not discussed during the meeting, but other officials also said after the meeting they supported the public’s right to know about crimes involving juveniles, with identifying information redacted.  

Desiderio told the Herald he would be open to setting up a meeting with the prosecutor, the press, and police chiefs to discuss a way to communicate about juvenile crimes more effectively with the public. 

Another part of last year’s new legislation that left police feeling handcuffed had to do with their potential exposure if they handled juvenile incidents inappropriately.  

Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian said in the meeting that his police department’s members stood back and allowed things that shouldn’t have been happening to happen over the summer because of their fear of facing criminal liability, according to an account afterward from Sen. Michael Testa (R-1st). 

The legislation stated that police could be charged with a third-degree crime for violating a juvenile’s new rights.  

County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland told the Herald he thought the meeting was productive at finding ways to empower law enforcement under the current law, but that they were also able to give accounts of their experience directly to lawmakers with the ability to enact real change. 

“It is nice to have legislative representatives here because they’re hearing directly from law enforcement and the Prosecutor’s Office on how to make improvements that will help everybody. Everyone’s goal is to make things safer. None of this was about how do we further penalize juveniles,” Sutherland said.  

Sutherland noted the unique challenges associated with being a tourist county may have been something some lawmakers in other parts of the state didn’t consider with the original law. 

“The object is to get things changed, not turn it into negative energy and just say, ‘Oh, this is terrible,’ and not really come up with a solution. I think today was that better situation where everyone came here with the intent of, how can we work together to do this better,” Sutherland said. 

While many participants agreed police now have a better understanding of the law and what they can and cannot do under it, they also agreed change is needed.  

“Cleanup legislation is necessary that allows law enforcement to use the tools necessary, so that they can disperse groups of individuals who are consuming alcohol, who are consuming cannabis, in any of its forms,” said Testa. 

While there seemed to be a consensus that the legislation swung the pendulum too far in the favor of minors, there was also a common agreement that the goal of any cleanup efforts would still make a commitment to protecting minors’ identities and avoiding needlessly giving them a criminal record.  

“This isn’t about arresting minors for consuming alcohol or marijuana, this is about allowing communities to remain safe, allow station house adjustments, allow the law enforcement officers to call a juvenile’s parents. Right now, they’re not even allowed to do that,” Testa said.  

“We’re not looking to arrest juveniles, but we’re just looking to make sure they have a full understanding of what’s right and wrong and be more respectful,” Assemblyman Antwan McClellan (R-1st) said.  

Testa said he believes police should also be able to keep a log of juveniles they interact with for these types of incidents and share it with different departments, which is not allowed now.  

“If one individual is in Ocean City on Wednesday and gets a warning and then is in Avalon on Thursday and gets a warning, Avalon should know about the Ocean City incident,” Testa said.  

Change in legislation can be a slow process and the immediate future seems unclear as spring approaches. What will things look like this summer?  

“Hopefully, some of the volumes of people that were engaged in these activities on the beach and boardwalk will be lower and, hopefully, some of the ideas we came up with on how to address having crowds, on top of that, will make it a much better summer,” said Sutherland.  

To contact Shay Roddy, email sroddy@cmcherald.com. 

 

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