By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Ocean City is facing an escalation in underage drinking and fights by groups of rowdy teenagers who have turned parts of the beach into their own “nightclub.”
“Crowds are bigger than last year, kids are drinking more than last year and there’s more fighting than last year,” Chief Constable Jay Prettyman said.
So far, the plan is to keep the partying teenagers on the beaches rather than letting them spill onto the family boardwalk, where they could wreak even more havoc, city officials say.
Prettyman declined to discuss specific details of the police department‘s strategy for dealing with outbursts of disruptive behavior, but he pointed out that there are more officers patrolling the boardwalk than ever before.
“We are constantly reassessing our deployment of staff on the boardwalk,” he said in an interview.
At a meeting on Thursday evening, city council members expressed their frustration with the teenage troublemakers. Councilman Jody Levchuk said Ocean City could not sit idly by and allow its image as “America’s greatest resort” to be tarnished by “a bunch of punk kids.”
Levchuk, whose family owns Jilly’s Boardwalk stores, said the 11th Street beach has become one of the most popular places for large groups of teenagers to hold parties.
“It’s the hottest nightclub on the Jersey Shore right now,” he said sarcastically of all the beach parties.
Prettyman said the beach between 10th and 12th Streets is where most teenagers hang out at night.
Councilwoman Karen Bergman noted that social media gives teens an opportunity to spread the word quickly and come together in large groups. She suggested that Ocean City should use social media as a tool to somehow “intercept” the arrival of disruptive teenagers this summer.
During their discussion, Council members repeatedly praised Prettyman and the police department for doing what they could to keep the teenagers from spiraling out of control.
At the same time, they discussed potential new ways to crack down on unruly behavior, including the possibility of approving a stricter curfew on beaches and Boardwalk in hopes of preventing teenagers from congregating late into the night. the night.
Ocean City already has a 10 p.m. curfew for beaches, city attorney Dorothy McCrosson said. McCrosson acknowledged that the teenagers stayed on the beaches after 10 p.m.
A once-quiet bayside park at Second Street and Bay Avenue has become another place for strolling, drinking and loud music at night by groups of young people, neighbors complained to the city council during the meeting of Thursday evening.
The disruptive behavior threatens to “literally destroy” the normally quiet area of Second Street and Bay Avenue, one of the neighbors, James Kane, told the Council.
Kane said he’s already spoken to Prettyman and First Ward Councilman Terry Crowley Jr. and everyone seems to be “on the same page” that something needs to be done to fix the problem. Kane suggested the city consider cordoning off the park at night.
Last summer, the police department increased patrols throughout the city, particularly along the promenade and in the downtown business district, to prevent groups of unruly teenagers from riding the streets and to harass motorists. There have also been reports of teenagers fighting on the boardwalk in the past year.
Prettyman pointed out that the biggest problem so far this summer is underage drinking. He said the teens became particularly brazen because they knew police could do little more than issue a warning to them under New Jersey law.
“These children understand that they will only receive a warning and they have grown bolder,” he said.
The warnings are known in police parlance as “curbside adjustments” or “curbside warnings”. A December 2020 directive from former New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal requires officers to issue curbside warnings to minors who engage in minor acts of crime instead of detaining or arresting them.
For example, if a minor is in possession of marijuana or alcohol, the police can do no more than issue a warning. Minors are not required to give their name to the police. The police are also limited in notifying the parents of minors.
The curbside warnings are part of broader reforms to New Jersey’s justice system “to demonstrate to minors that police are there to guide, direct, and assist them, not just to take them into custody,” according to the guideline.
During a wave of uproar by groups of teens and young adults in Jersey Shore communities last summer, some local, county and state officials complained that the directive had effectively prevented the police to do their job.
Police are now limited to an ‘entourage, observation and child custody mode’ when approaching rambunctious minors, Prettyman said at a law enforcement summit held in Sea Isle City last February to discuss how to prevent another spike in bad behavior this summer.
“It’s all about kids being able to drink before they’re 21 and all we can do is give them a warning,” Prettyman said.
Additionally, the 2020 directive limits the ability of the police to investigate minors. This puts police at risk of being charged with a third degree felony for depriving minors of their civil rights if they are searched without sufficient cause.
Prettyman was part of a conference call last week that included police chiefs from Monmouth and Ocean counties, New Jersey acting attorney general Matthew Platkin, the state police chief and a representative from the governor’s office. Phil Murphy. During the call, Prettyman said he urged state officials to include an exemption in the law to give police more power to crack down on underage drinking.
Depending on the age of the offenders, Prettyman said he would like to be able to fine underage drinkers or take them back to the police station and notify their parents. This was how police treated minors when caught drinking and it was effective, he noted.
With police now limited to issuing warnings for alcohol or marijuana offences, teens simply have “no fear,” Prettyman said.
Councilman Tom Rotondi said coastal communities should come together to pressure state lawmakers to approve reforms that would help police deal with teenage rowdy.
“We have to do something,” said Rotondi, vice-president of the Council.
Ultimately, Prettyman thinks parents need to take a bigger role in watching their teenage children go out at night.
“Parents need to stop sending their kids on the Ocean City boardwalk unsupervised,” he said.
Levchuk also called on parents to take more responsibility for watching over their teenage children.
“It’s much more than a police problem. Right now it’s a parent issue,” Levchuk said.