OCEAN CITY – Over Memorial Day weekend, Ocean City police responded to 999 calls for service due mainly to large groups of teens gathered on the city’s beaches and engaged in illegal activities.
Mayor Jay Gillian reported that teens were participating in underage drinking, vandalism, assaults, and shoplifting. He even added that police were called to confiscate an illegal firearm.
It was enough to warrant a call for a special meeting of Ocean City Council at 1 p.m. June 1 to introduce a new set of measures aimed at curtailing the disruptive and dangerous behavior of the youth groups.
The measures taken together change the nature of summer at the shore, but the mayor and the governing body feel they are the necessary response to outright lawlessness.
Two ordinances were introduced at the special meeting.
One moves an already existing curfew for those under 18 from 1 a.m. to 11 p.m. The ordinance contains a list of what Solicitor Dottie McCrosson termed “common sense exceptions,” including teens going to or returning from work, attendance at school or religious events, and juveniles accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Enforcement of the curfew starts with two curbside warnings followed by a possible stationhouse adjustment where the juveniles are taken into custody and parents or guardians must pick them up at the station. No charges will be filed. The parent or guardian may be liable for fines if convicted in municipal court.
A second ordinance was introduced to ban backpacks on beaches, boardwalks, and beach street ends from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. and from May 15 to Sept. 15. This ban on backpacks applies to all individuals, not just juveniles.
McCrosson emphasized that police would use common sense enforcement but would not engage in profiling or selective enforcement targeting only juveniles. Exceptions are again listed in the ordinance.
Penalties for violation include fines for adults and a similar process of escalating law enforcement responses for juveniles as are in the previous ordinance on curfews.
Ocean City already designated several unwelcome behaviors as breaches of the peace in order to provide yet another tool for law enforcement confronted with responding to the juvenile problem.
In addition, Gillian has used his authority to close beaches at 8 p.m. and beach area restrooms at 10 p.m.
At a press conference following the special council meeting, Sen. Michael Testa (R-1st) called events in Ocean City over Memorial Day weekend “unacceptable.”
Testa said the behavior the shore towns are struggling with is “a direct result of our governor handcuffing law enforcement.”
Testa’s reference was to 2020 New Jersey attorney general rules on juvenile justice reform. The rules significantly limited the actions of police in dealing with juveniles engaged in potentially illegal or disruptive behaviors.
The attorney general directives followed from legislation that put police officers in danger of being charged with indictable offenses if they overstep the new boundaries that limit their actions in interactions with juveniles.
Gov. Phil Murphy at the time said the purpose of the legislation and the enforcement rules is to “eliminate longstanding disparities that have prevented people of Black and Brown communities from reaching their full potential.”
Following the press conference, Testa issued a press release that listed a number of bills he has sponsored which he asserts would “help address many of the problems the shore communities are experiencing.”
Among these bills is one that removes the potential criminal liability for law enforcement officers who have an “investigative encounter with an underage person for possession of alcohol or cannabis.”
Another “enhances penalties for certain crimes committed during riots” and creates a class of crime for mob intimidation and cyber intimidation “by publishing.”
Testa wants municipalities to have the ability to establish alcohol- and cannabis-free zones where violators would face civil penalties. He also argues for the ability of towns to designate special event zones.
Where We Are
For three years following these attempts at reform, juvenile lawlessness and rowdy behavior have resulted in escalating steps by coastal municipalities to protect lives and property with local ordinances that themselves must be drafted to stay within the boundaries of the state regulations.
Testa warns that “business owners will suffer the consequences” of government inaction. Local authorities argue that the three years since juvenile reform efforts began have already taken their toll.
The result is summer at the shore characterized by curfews, backpack bans, schedules for closed beaches and public restrooms, and the threat of fines for adults whose inattention has left the monitoring of juvenile illegal behavior to others.
Murphy’s office has indicated, after three years of largely silent response to the problems of the shore communities, that Murphy will work with municipalities to address issues like those in Ocean City.
The ordinances introduced at the special council meeting will be up for adoption and a public hearing June 15.
Contact the author, Vince Conti, at firstname.lastname@example.org.