By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Ocean City’s police department will increase patrols throughout town, particularly along the Boardwalk and in the downtown business district, to crack down on groups of unruly teenage bikers that seem to have become more brazen in recent weeks.
Speaking during a City Council meeting Thursday night, Police Chief Jay Prettyman outlined his department’s strategy for dealing with a problem that includes bikers hurling insults or profanity at motorists and banging their hands on cars while riding down the streets.
Prettyman, though, emphasized that the bikers are not part of organized gangs that are deliberately menacing the city.
“They’re just kids,” he said in an interview after the three-hour Council meeting. “Most of them are peaceful. There are just some instigators who are causing aggravation for everybody.”
Although police have been dealing with troublesome teenage bikers for months by giving them warnings, things reached a crescendo last Saturday when a large group overflowed into the streets, Prettyman said.
“The kids started to antagonize vehicles. Bicyclists came head-on, insulting them, smacking the hood of their cars,” he said.
Prettyman told the Council members that he spoke with Mayor Jay Gillian and met with the police department’s supervisory officers on Sunday and Monday to develop an “action plan” to respond to the teens.
“We were done with the warnings,” he said. “We needed a stronger approach.”
Police will immediately step up their patrols to prevent bikers from getting out hand, Prettyman said. They will also hand out traffic tickets if the bikers are out on the streets and break the law.
“Come the next couple of days, you will see some heavier enforcement and traffic violations,” Prettyman said.
As an added measure, police plan to videotape the groups of bikers to help them identify any teens engaging in rowdy or unsafe behavior.
Prettyman urged the public to contact police if they see something wrong.
“We need people to dial police when it is happening. After the fact defeats the purpose of us being there to stop it,” he said. “We need to partner with the community so we can address the problems.”
Prettyman also urged the Council members to consider revising the city’s ordinance for the hours bikers are allowed on the Boardwalk during weekends in April. He would like to see biking on the Boardwalk end at noon on April weekends to discourage teenage bikers from gathering in large groups later in the day or at night.
Some of the Council members questioned whether the bike hours should be changed. Councilman Jody Levchuk said he thought that limiting the bike hours could hurt business on the Boardwalk and would penalize everyday bikers.
“We are asked to change a bike ordinance to noon, and it will prevent families from being able to enjoy the Boardwalk,” said Levchuk, who owns the Jilly’s stores on the Boardwalk. “I just don’t think removing bikes earlier is the solution. I think it would upset a whole lot of people. Remove them if they are reckless and lay out the enforcement.”
City officials believe most of the unruly teens come to Ocean City from other towns. Prettyman said other shore communities have also been dealing with a similar problem.
Councilman Peter Madden, in comments echoed by other members of the governing body, said he has “complete confidence” in Prettyman and the police department to protect the city.
While detailing the steps police plan to take against the rowdy bikers, Prettyman stressed that his department will not resort to heavy-handed or “draconian” tactics.
He noted that police departments in New Jersey must follow a December 2020 directive from state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal that requires officers to give “curbside warnings” to juveniles who are engaging in minor acts of delinquency instead of detaining or arresting them.
The curbside warnings are part of broader reforms in New Jersey’s justice system “to demonstrate to juveniles that police officers are present to give guidance, direction, and assistance, and not simply to take them into custody,” according to the directive.
Members of City Council criticized the directive, saying they believed it would hamper police in dealing with unruly teenagers.
Councilman Tom Rotondi asserted that juvenile justice reform “has really hamstrung our officers.” He suggested that Ocean City officials should work with county and state lawmakers to protest some of the juvenile justice reforms, including those that put police officers at risk of being arrested if they violate the attorney general’s directive.
In similar comments, Councilman Keith Hartzell said Ocean City “might have to fight back” against the attorney general’s directive to protect the community.
Councilman Michael DeVlieger, who was also critical of the attorney general’s directive, said it would encourage juveniles to commit crimes because they know they may not face arrest.
“There’s got to be a level of accountability somewhere,” he said.
DeVlieger said he has had firsthand experience with unruly teenage bikers while driving in Ocean City. He said he was forced to veer out of the way to avoid hitting one biker who refused to move away from his car.
While speaking to Prettyman, DeVlieger said he is particularly concerned that rowdy teens are intimidating and frightening senior citizens. He noted he has received complaints from residents about teenage bikers.
“I have to advocate for the people. These people want action,” he said.
As a first step, DeVlieger would like to see an increased police presence at the North Street playground to prevent teens from congregating there.
Council President Bob Barr said he was disturbed when he saw videos posted on social media of the teenage bikers stirring up trouble last Saturday. He believes that the problems with the teens “seem to be escalating.”
“If we have to spend more on overtime, equipment, education, whatever it is, we’re Ocean City, that’s what we do. People want to come here because we are a safe place. The videos I saw Saturday night, they were troubling. We can’t have that,” Barr said.
The Council members, Mayor Gillian and Prettyman all agreed that the city needs a broader approach toward solving the problem, including having community meetings with teenagers and their parents.
Councilwoman Karen Bergman said Prettyman should also meet with the community to outline his strategy for handling the groups of teenage bikers.
Gillian noted that his department of Community Services is creating camps and other activities for kids to keep them out of trouble.
“We are trying to get as much things for kids as we can,” Gillian said. “We are doing the best we can with Community Services and we are working with the schools.”
Meanwhile, some members of the public who attended the Council meeting at the Ocean City Music Pier warned city officials not to portray the teenage bikers as “gangs and thugs.”
“I don’t think it was right or fair to put labels on kids,” Rev. Gregory Johnson, a former Ocean City councilman, told the governing body during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Johnson won agreement from Council when he said the entire community needs to work together to address the problem.
Ashley Boyer, an Ocean City resident who has a 12-year-old son who likes to ride his bike, demanded an apology from anyone who said local kids are thugs.
“This is Ocean City. There’s no thugs here. There’s no gangs here,” Boyer told the Council members.