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Shore Safety Hearing Draws Calls for Parental Accountability, More Police Tools

Herald Screenshot
Officials attend a legislative hearing on safety concerns at the Shore on Wednesday, June 12.

By Vince Conti

Speakers at a legislative hearing on safety concerns at the Shore said more tools are needed to combat lawlessness on the part of juveniles and young adults. At the same time they sought to convince the public that their cities were safe and welcoming.

The virtual hearing June 12 was hosted by 1st Legislative District Sen. Michael Testa, who was joined by 1st District Assemblymen Antwan McClellan and Erik Simonsen, along with the Assembly representatives from the 2nd District, Don Guardian and Claire Swift, all Republicans.

Testifying were the chiefs of police of Ocean City and Wildwood, boardwalk business owner and Ocean City Councilman Jody Levchuk, William Broughton, the director of public safety in Long Branch, Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano and Ocean City’s Michael Allegretto, speaking for Mayor Jay Gillian.

The immediate sparks for the hearing were the Memorial Day weekend incidents with unruly youth in Ocean City and Wildwood. However, the discussion quickly moved to broader horizons, dropping back to include the unsanctioned car rally that claimed two lives in Wildwood in September 2022 and adding testimony about similar rowdy and dangerous behavior all along the Shore line.

Even non-Shore incidents of similar behavior were put on the record based on recent happenings in Gloucester and Camden counties.

Themes touched on by the speakers rapidly coalesced, as the different perspectives represented by those testifying led to similar suggested pathways for legislative action.

When speaking of a rise in dangerous and illegal behavior by juveniles, speakers almost immediately turned to the question of parental liability. Repeatedly, lawmakers heard that ways must be found to hold parents civilly and perhaps even criminally liable for unsupervised illegal behavior of underaged youths on Shore boardwalks and beaches.

Police Chiefs John Murphy, of Wildwood, and William Campbell, of Ocean City, both described numerous instances when calls to parents were met with annoyance at being disturbed, unwillingness to get involved and anger at the police for “picking on” their children. Campbell said being able to hold parents accountable is key to approaching the problem successfully.

Both chiefs, along with several others who spoke, dismissed recent remarks by state Attorney General Matthew Platkin, who has claimed that adequate laws exist for controlling the problems the Shore communities are experiencing. Platkin appeared to blame Wildwood for not having sufficient police presence over the holiday weekend to deter bad behavior.

Troiano dismissed Platkin’s remarks as uninformed. He did take a moment to thank Gov. Phil Murphy for offering State Police support on busy weekends in Wildwood.

The mayor said that on any given weekend Wildwood can see as many as 250,000 visitors to its boardwalk. “We are used to dealing with crowds,” he said. “We have trained officers who are comfortable dealing with them.”

A growing problem, he added, is large groups of young people who are bringing their hometown grudges to settle on the boardwalk. “They know each other,” he said. “They are playing out hometown issues at the Shore.”

Levchuk struck a resonant chord with some of the other speakers when he spoke of “peeling back the onion”: He agreed youth behavior issues are a national problem, but he saw a “common denominator.”

“We are dealing with young people who feel they cannot get into trouble for anything that they do,” he said. The absence of consequences has emboldened their behavior and fueled their lack of respect for law enforcement, he said.

The issue returns to the unintended consequences of the state’s juvenile reform efforts, now in their fourth year.

Testa said that no one is seeking to give young people permanent criminal records, that this is not the outcome anyone favors. But avoiding that outcome should not mean creating civil rights liabilities for police officers who have every reason to believe they are confronting illegal activity, he said.

Requesting legislative relief so police officers can better control dangerous, and in many cases illegal, behavior by large groups of young people is not tantamount to being against juvenile justice reform was a sentiment expressed in different ways by several speakers.

Guardian said he favored longer terms of community service; Swift, who has seen the same issues in her hometown of Margate, called for greater support from the courts; Simonsen floated a six-hour Saturday consequence for disruptive behavior as a way to inconvenience parents as well as perpetrators; McClellan agreed that real-world consequences are an essential element of a solution.

Two other avenues of potential legislative assistance surfaced in the discussion.

All agreed that it was important to have a legal basis for holding promoters liable for the pop-up parties they promote. Once identified, these promoters would face civil and even criminal penalties. A corollary brought up by Broughton and supported by both Campbell and Murphy is legislation to make it easier for law enforcement to identify these promoters. Social media companies do not willingly give up the information law enforcement requires.

Testa often returned to the basic fact that for Shore communities tourism is the lifeblood of their economies. Levchuk spoke of a higher level of shoplifting; Broughton pointed to one incident that cost a local Long Branch restaurant $17,000 in lost revenue. The stories of others followed suit.

Through direct behavior like shoplifting or the intimidation factor of hundreds of youths often engaged in illegal drinking and marijuana use, businesses suffer lost revenue, and visitors begin to rethink a trip to the Shore, speakers said.

As Ocean City’s Allegretto summed it up, tourism in Ocean City depends on the perception that the city is clean and safe. “Once you lose that,” he said, “it’s hard to get it back.”

Those wishing to watch the full two-hour discussion can do so on the New Jersey Senate Republicans Facebook page.

Contact the reporter, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Vince Conti is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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