VILLAS – About a dozen citizens showed up at Lower Township Hall Nov. 7 to tell the mayor and council they need help controlling juveniles who they say are creating problems in their neighborhood.
“They have gotten out of hand and the police can’t do anything,” said a resident who lives off Sheriff Taylor Boulevard in North Cape May. “We’re asking for your help.”
This resident’s comments were echoed by several others who wanted something to be done to curb what they defined as disruptive, disrespectful and even threatening behavior by juveniles in their neighborhood.
Mayor Frank Sippel said he and Councilman Roland Roy attended a roundtable discussion that morning, which was attended by local mayors and chiefs of police, as well as the county sheriff, prosecutor and state officials. Sippel said there were laws passed in recent years that were meant to deal mainly with urban areas in New Jersey, but which many say are hampering law enforcement’s ability to deal with juvenile behavior.
“If a police officer asks a juvenile his name he faces a third-degree crime,” Sippel said.
Sippel said as recently as a year ago, if a juvenile was walking down the street with a beer an officer was not allowed to do anything.
Resident Steven Paleio questioned the accuracy of statements like that and referred to the much-quoted NJ Attorney General Directive 2020-12, issued Dec. 3, 2020, titled, “Directive Establishing Policies, Practices and Procedures to Promote Juvenile Justice Reform.”
“All I have been hearing is that it is out of the cops’ hands – it’s not,” he said. “The police can give a curbside warning, and it can go further if it’s a more serious offense or they continue in the same offense.”
The Directive 2020-12 describes a curbside warning as a “talking to” for “some minor act of delinquency.” The curbside warning, according to the directive, could be as simple as the officer telling the juvenile to “knock it off.” The next level of interaction could be what the directive calls a “stationhouse adjustment.”
In this situation, the officer asks the juvenile and his or her parents to come to the police station to address the offense and discuss a resolution, which will be put into a written agreement. The directive goes on to explain how law enforcement should handle more serious offenses. The intent of the directive was to come up with solutions to disorderly conduct rather than arrest, detention, and a criminal record.
Township Solicitor David Stefankiewicz told the residents the township doesn’t really have the tools it needs to deter bad behavior by juveniles.
“(The statute) doesn’t have a lot of teeth to deal with this unless it’s a really, really serious situation,” he said.
Stefankiewicz echoed statements by the mayor and manager saying a strategy would be developed to deal with the juvenile problem in that neighborhood. Resident Tony Doria, who said he was nearly 90 years old, said the police come and establish a presence in the neighborhood, but as soon as the police leave, the juveniles come out.
“That will be part of our strategy,” Sippel said.
Sippel said the township had juvenile issues before, and township officials had meetings with residents and law enforcement and developed strategies to deal with the problem. Township Manager Mike Laffey said those meetings were quite successful in dealing with juveniles who were “acting up.”
“In other areas, we made great strides in a couple of different neighborhoods,” Laffey said.
Residents complained of juveniles being out until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., destroying people’s property. One mother said there was a shotgun out on the streets. She has been the target of threats and her house has been vandalized. One resident said juveniles were essentially using his property as a playground and had pulled up lights and plants. More than one resident complained of being cursed at by juveniles, and some received verbal threats from kids.
Doria asked if there was no juvenile curfew to enforce.
“That would be unconstitutional,” Sippel said.
Councilman Tom Conrad said the Borough of Avalon, when it attempted to impose a juvenile curfew, was told it would have to be general and essentially would mean shutting down its promenade.
The residents attending the meeting asked the mayor and council specifically what it would do to counter the juvenile problem in their neighborhood.
“It’s hard. If we could change it, we would work until three in the morning to get it fixed,” Sippel said.
Sippel referred more than once to the county’s Roundtable Work Session on Preventing Disorderly and Criminal Gatherings. The workshop included a discussion of the H2oi car rally that plagued the area at the end of September, as well as juvenile problems faced mainly by barrier island communities all summer long.
County Commissioner Leonard Desiderio said the intent was to work with all towns and even across county lines in order to come up with a regional solution to these problems. He said officials from Cape May County are willing to travel to Trenton and testify before any committee, in order to make the changes that give more authority to law enforcement to control juveniles.
Sippel reiterated that the best chance for a solution was to have a meeting and develop a strategy specifically aimed at addressing the problems in the neighborhood being discussed. Sippel and Conrad continued to speak to residents after the meeting was adjourned.
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