Ocean City Targets Rowdy Teens Using New Strategy


Ocean City Targets Rowdy Teens Using New Strategy
City Council approves a new ordinance giving police “additional tools” to respond to unruly juveniles.

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI

Ocean City will try to rein in groups of rowdy teenagers that have been disrupting the vital summer tourism season two years in a row by giving police more power to take juveniles into custody.

City Council gave final approval Thursday night to a new ordinance that will classify a litany of minor offenses such as underage drinking, curfew violations and littering as a “breach of the peace” to allow police to detain juveniles who allegedly break local laws.

“We’re just trying to give the police additional tools in maintaining the peace during the summer months when it’s so busy in Ocean City,” City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson told Council.

The new ordinance is 22 pages long. It covers such things as underage drinking, curfew violations, beach tag violations, smoking in smoke-free parks or playgrounds, littering, riding bikes on the Boardwalk after hours, excessive noise, graffiti, setting off illegal fireworks and juveniles misrepresenting their age.

Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland has recommended that Ocean City and other Cape May County beach towns should designate minor crimes in their local ordinances as a “breach of the peace” as part of a new strategy to crack down on troublesome teens.

Ocean City will be the first municipality in Cape May County to try the tactic, Police Chief Jay Prettyman said in an interview in December.

“This is another tool in our broad strategy to address juvenile behavior,” he said.

Essentially, minor offenses are being elevated into a more serious category falling under the broad umbrella of disturbing the peace.

Prettyman explained that offenses classified as a breach of the peace are broadly considered “anything that disrupts the normal flow of life.”

Under the ordinance, police will now be able to take underage offenders into custody and call their parents or legal guardians to pick them up at the police station.

Groups of teenagers hang out on Ocean City’s 11th Street beach on the night of Aug. 5, 2022.

Ocean City and other shore communities have been working with the county prosecutor and state lawmakers on ways to handle large groups of unruly teens that gather on the beaches, boardwalks or other popular hangouts during the summer.

Elected officials and police chiefs at the Jersey Shore have complained for two summers in a row that rowdy teens have little to fear now of being arrested, which has emboldened them to commit crimes such as theft, vandalism, underage public drinking and smoking marijuana.

State laws enacted in 2021 as part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s juvenile justice reforms put restrictions on police on how far they can go in their interactions with teens. Murphy wants to avoid saddling teenagers a criminal record that could hurt them later on when they try to enter college or begin their careers.

Instead of placing juveniles under arrest or taking them into custody, officers are required under state law to give them “curbside warnings” for minor crimes such as underage drinking or marijuana possession.

Elected officials and police chiefs at the Jersey Shore have complained for two summers in a row that rowdy teens have little to fear now of being arrested, which has emboldened them to commit crimes such as theft, vandalism, underage public drinking and smoking marijuana.

Tougher laws targeting rowdy teens and young adults at the Jersey Shore gained greater urgency after an unsanctioned pop-up H2oi car rally in Wildwood on Sept. 24 turned into chaos in the streets, resulting in the deaths of two people struck by a fleeing driver who was later arrested and indicted.

Leonard Desiderio, the director of the Cape May County Board of Commissioners, said local, county and state lawmakers have been discussing state legislation to “swing the pendulum back” in favor of police.

In the meantime, he praised Ocean City for taking steps at the local level to give police more power to crack down on rowdy teens.

“This is a great first step,” Desiderio told members of City Council at their meeting Thursday about the new ordinance.

Cape May County Commission Director Leonard Desiderio, who also serves as mayor of Sea Isle City, says beach towns along the Jersey Shore are struggling with rowdy teens.

Desiderio, who also serves as the mayor of Sea Isle City, said his beach town and others along the Jersey Shore have been dealing with similar problems such as Ocean City’s involving rowdy juvenile behavior.

“This is not a Republican or Democrat problem. It’s a problem we all need to work on together,” he said while calling for bipartisan cooperation at the local, county and state levels.

City Council approved the new ordinance by a 6-0 vote. Three residents who spoke in favor of the ordinance during the public portion of the Council meeting expressed hope that police will enforce the law throughout the entire town, not just at popular hangout areas for teens, such as the Boardwalk.

“We feel the attention should be paid on the entire island,” said one of the residents, Eric Plyler, who lives on Gull Road.

In response, Mayor Jay Gillian assured the residents that the ordinance will be enforced “island wide.”

“I can tell you that Chief Prettyman and his team are out all of the time. We’re doing everything to keep order,” Gillian said.

During their vote on the ordinance, the Council members all agreed that the ordinance is needed to give police “more tools.”

“Anything we can do to stop this nonsense is good,” Councilman Bob Barr said, referring to teen rowdiness.

Councilman Tom Rotondi said he won’t take his young children on the Boardwalk at night to prevent them from being exposed to unruly behavior.

“I’m glad we can combat it,” Rotondi said of the new ordinance targeting troublesome teens.

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