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UPDATE: Officials Address Challenges Posed by Holiday Weekend Problems; New Info Added

Christopher South
Ocean City Police Chief Bill Campbell at a press conference called to address the problems over the Memorial Day weekend. Campbell said the major issues were resolved quickly.

By Christopher South

Government and law enforcement officials, after reviewing the disruptive events caused by young people in Shore towns and on boardwalks during the Memorial Day weekend, took differing views of the problems and their scope.

Ocean City reported the stabbing of a 15-year-old on Saturday, May 25, and Wildwood closed down its boardwalk at around 12:20 a.m. on Monday, May 27, until 6 a.m. that day, after declaring a state of emergency due to civil unrest. Unruly behavior was reported in other Shore towns, but Gov. Phil Murphy didn’t think it was as bad as reported.

“The Shore did not have a chaotic weekend,” Murphy said. “There were three very serious incidents. But this was overwhelmingly a huge Memorial Day.”

On the other hand, the governor called the mayors in the affected towns and told them the state was there to help.

“He said he would give us whatever we need,” said Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian, speaking after a press conference in Ocean City on Thursday, May 30.

Gillian, Ocean City Police Chief Bill Campbell, state legislators, Cape May County commissioners and Ocean City Council members attended the press conference.

Leonard Desiderio, county Board of County Commissioners director, said videos showed “a few violent, lawless young people walking our boardwalks looking for innocent victims to terrorize and assault. We also saw this in other parts of the state on other boardwalks.”

Desiderio said the county was taking the matter of a few young people causing trouble “very, very seriously” and would be calling another roundtable meeting of municipal leaders and law enforcement to address it.

“We’re not going to tolerate any BS,” he said.

Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian talking about the disruptive behavior reported at Shore towns over the Memorial Day weekend. Photo Credit: Christopher South

In a press release issued by Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland, the prosecutor referred to “large groups of teens and young adults on the boardwalk, in Wildwood and Ocean City, resulting in extended and intense police activities.” He said the incidents “could have resulted in much more significant injuries to people and damage to property.”

The Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority said there were no major incidents reported, and the state of emergency was due to the police being proactive. The Wildwood Police Department said the state of emergency was called to respond to an “irrepressible number of calls for service in the City of Wildwood on the evening of Saturday, May 25.”

The incidents over the holiday weekend also prompted a disagreement between state Attorney General Matthew Platkin and Wildwood Police Chief Joe Murphy. Platkin was quoted by ABC News as saying Wildwood simply did not have enough police assigned to the boardwalk over the weekend, when disorder eventually led to the closing of the boardwalk on May 27, just after midnight.

Platkin said Wildwood hired the fewest officers ever for the 2024 summer season. Towns up and down the coast have said they are having difficulty hiring enough seasonal officers. As reported in the Herald in August 2023, Avalon Police Chief Jeffrey Christopher said that in 2011 he had 263 people apply to be seasonal officers, and in 2023 he had 11 applicants for 14 positions. Other towns have experienced similar declines.

Murphy said he had 30 of his department’s officers and more than 10 others — for a total of more than 40 officers — assigned to cover the boardwalk for the Memorial Day weekend. The chief said in a press release that this was more officers than in the past two years.

“The disheartening truth of the situation is the crowds we encountered this year were disobedient, volatile and aggressive toward officers,” Murphy said. “At one point, our officers had firecrackers thrown at them while they were conducting crowd-control measures.”

Wildwood’s dispatch log from the weekend indicated that some corrections officers were brought in to respond to calls. The log also showed that the police chief and deputy chief were dispatched to handle calls. The Ocean City police chief told the Herald he was on the boardwalk over the weekend.

Most of the more than 1,500 calls logged by Wildwood dispatch between Friday, May 24, and Monday, May 27, were related to “the extremely large number of young adults and juveniles that were in the city for the Memorial Day weekend.”

Murphy said his officers issued thousands of curbside warnings, which are given for minor infractions, and made 47 arrests, with more pending identification. A curbside warning can simply be an officer saying “knock it off” to a juvenile engaged in a minor violation.

Campbell said the incidents that prompted a significant response from the Ocean City department were fights that included the stabbing — one source described it as a “slashing” with a box cutter. The chief said the participants in these events were believed to have come from Atlantic County, that the individuals knew each other, and that the stabbing was a targeted event.

“We believe they planned to have the event occur on the Ocean City boardwalk,” Campbell said. “In between 60 to 90 minutes we had the matter completely resolved.”

Police have identified a group of individuals involved in the altercation that resulted in the stabbing, but no arrests have been made.

Ocean City provided statistics from the weekend showing a total of eight fights over the four days. Wildwood recorded at least 25 fights over the weekend.

Ocean City said in a handout that 1,306 curbside warnings were issued. The city said minor infractions include, for example, riding a bike on the boardwalk after permitted hours, violating new ordinances such as being on the beach after 8 p.m. or carrying a backpack on the boardwalk at night, or violating alcohol or cannabis prohibitions for youth.

The concept of a curbside warning runs contrary to the understanding some have regarding the attorney general’s directives on handling juvenile violators. Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, who is from Ocean City, said he would like to see legislation that would “give police the authority to talk to the teens.” Campbell, when asked by the Herald if officers could speak to juveniles, said “Yes.”

Dealing with alcohol and cannabis issues involving juveniles can be tricky. Allen Bloodgood, a retired police officer and the operator of Case Law 4 Cops, which uses court cases that “cover what officers can and cannot do in several areas of law,” is well-versed in state statutes regarding how to handle juveniles publicly using alcohol or cannabis.

Last year, Lower Township Mayor Frank Sippel said at a council meeting that if the police saw a juvenile walking down the street with an open beer, they could not say anything to the youth. Bloodgood said that is not true, that the officer is obligated to take away the container of alcohol. On the other hand, he said, police are not permitted to search a juvenile’s backpack or even ask for consent.

He said there is still a lot of confusion since New Jersey took steps to legalize recreational cannabis use. He said statutes were rewritten to ensure that police would minimize contact with the underage population and keep kids out of the correctional system. The changes, he said, didn’t necessarily filter down through training for officers.

But one thing that was disseminated among officers, he said, was criminal penalties put in place for officers who don’t correctly follow the law. “It made officers reluctant to engage juveniles for possession of alcohol and cannabis,” Bloodgood said.

He said officers cannot take steps based on the odor of alcohol or cannabis, so they need to focus on behavior. “You can’t just stop them and search for alcohol or cannabis, but they can focus on the behavior,” he said.

Bloodgood said in the case of juveniles drinking in public, officers have to follow procedures that require a written warning for the juvenile and a sworn statement from the officer. Although it takes time and effort, police can make a positive change without fear of repercussion if they follow all the guidelines.

“I think what it comes down to is everyone being on the same sheet of music,” he said.

Bloodgood said that, to his knowledge, no police officer in New Jersey has been charged for his interaction with a juvenile offender.

Contact the reporter, Christopher South, at csouth@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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