“It’s a challenge for us, just the sheer volume of kids that are coming into town,” Ocean City Police Chief Jay Prettyman said Friday.
More than 1,000 young people have gathered on the beach near the Boardwalk in Ocean City’s downtown, he said. The crowds were at a peak over Memorial Day weekend, he said, with smaller crowds since. But with high schools letting out for the season, he expects the crowds to be back.
“It’s going to be interesting this weekend,” he said Friday.
Boardwalk merchants, city officials and others have expressed concern, both about safety for the kids and for families on the Boardwalk, and about the impact of such large gatherings.
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Council member Keith Hartzell suggested a curfew for the beach and the Boardwalk, possibly limiting when teenagers would be allowed. He said Philadelphia began enforcing a curfew in the wake of a deadly shooting on South Street.
Other members of council were more cautious.
“Let’s not make any knee-jerk reactions,” Council member Terrence Crowley said. He said things seem better than they were last summer.
Council member Karen Bergman said she was astonished by the number of teenagers at a recent weekend visit to the Boardwalk.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen anything like it,” she said. “But they were well behaved. They weren’t doing anything wrong. There just were so many.”
She pointed to social media. While she and her friends may have called each other and gathered on the Boardwalk when she was in high school, a message on a popular application could bring a thousand people out. Bergman suggested the city look to social media as well, as a way to get messages to the kids and parents.
“A lot of it’s kids being kids. I think we’ve all been there and done that. But it’s far beyond what all of us did as kids,” Levchuk said. He praised the efforts of police but said the parents have to be involved as well.
“It’s essentially the hottest nightclub for teenagers at the Jersey shore right now,” he said. “I don’t know how parents can let their teenagers go out like that.”
Having 1,000 teenagers in one place could be a concern, Prettyman said Friday. But if all of the kids were well behaved, he’d be having an easier time.
“They’re drinking more, they’re fighting more and they’re stealing more,” he said. “Shoplifting is up almost 400%.”
Merchants are unhappy, he said, describing that as understandable. And while parents and TikTok play a role, Prettyman is pointing a finger at Trenton. Last year, New Jersey introduced new limits on how police interact with juveniles, including limits on searches and on charges against juveniles.
Juvenile justice reform sought to keep young people out of the criminal justice system, expanding the use of curbside warnings and stationhouse adjustments over filing complaints against young people.
For many infractions, the most an officer can do is issue a warning. The kids know that, Prettyman said.
The smell of cannabis or the sight of a beer bottle is not enough to allow the search of someone under 18. That means that if they conceal the beverage, they won’t get a ticket and usually leave with the alcohol, Prettyman said.
Alcohol is a much bigger problem than cannabis among the teens on the Boardwalk, he said.
“The vast majority of our kids are consuming alcohol when they come down,” he said. He did not want to speak to the impact that may have on behavior, but almost everyone who has been 17 has a general idea about lowered inhibitions and increased bravado.
There is a 10 p.m. curfew on the beach in Ocean City, one that the police have decided against enforcing. Pushing the kids off the beach will just mean pushing them on to the Boardwalk or into the neighborhoods.
This way, police know where they are and keep an eye on them. He said the crowd is always surrounded by officers, who occasionally walk through to look for actionable infractions. They also take video of the teens.
On Friday night, teens began congregate on the dunes around 9:30, soon crowding the beach path. A few adults and families watched from a nearby gazebo, some assuming the gathering was part of an organized event.
There were police on the Boardwalk and surrounding the crowd, with an officer on an ATV riding along the beach and checking under the Boardwalk.
In the crowd, there was no noticeable smell of cannabis or visible containers of alcohol. Several teens declined to talk about why they came.
“Nah, I’m good,” said one young man wearing a bedsheet toga. Another demanded, unsuccessfully, that a photo in which he was visible be deleted.
Nelson Metz, 15, had been to previous gatherings. He said he lives in Pennsylvania, near King of Prussia. Metz said there usually wasn’t much trouble, maybe a couple of fights, but with the large number of police he did not think anything would get out of hand.
But he was noncommittal about why he was there, or even if the gathering was a good idea.
“I’m not really in favor of it, and I’m not really against it,” he said. “It’s something to do, I guess.”
On other nights, Metz said, when the police told the teens it was time to disperse, they did without complaint.
In the crowd, many people looked at their phones, chatted or searched for friends. Things remained quiet until a firework went off near the center of the crowd, sending white sparks over the heads of those nearby as officers waded in to find whoever lit it.
Every weekend, police make arrests for disorderly conduct and other offences, Prettyman said, and wherever they can, they bring the alleged offender to the station where the parents or guardians have to come to collect them.
He wants the state to carve out exceptions to the new rules for underage possession of alcohol, allowing stricter enforcement in beach towns.
Last year, multiple beach communities reported similar problems, and similar frustrations with limits on enforcement.
On Tuesday, Sea Isle City Mayor Leonard Desiderio made an appeal to City Council to work on amending the state’s juvenile justice reforms.
He called on council and residents to advocate for changes in the law, saying they have weakened the ability of police to protect public safety.
“I also want to assure everybody that, while we remain concerned about current legislation and press for needed changes, Sea Isle City is still as safe as ever,” Desiderio said in a prepared statement. “Our police department is fully staffed and prepared as always for the summer crowds. The measures we implemented last year relative to policing and working in partnership with our citizens and our business community served us well and are procedures that we can build on.”
In the 1990s, Sea Isle City spent long meetings talking about the trouble with teenagers congregating around businesses and bothering families. Ocean City police struggled to deal with the rebellious and disheveled teens of 1960s. Local officials say today’s issues are different, at least in terms of the numbers of kids.
And in the 1980s, slathered in rouge and eyeshadow, Twisted Sister sought to speak for the kids:
“Well, can you blame us for living our dreams? Just look around and you’ll see why,
We don’t wanna follow that same routine, maybe it’s for nothing, but we gotta try.”
Contact Bill Barlow: