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May 31, 2023

Ocean City steps up enforcement against 'drunken teens' after Memorial Day weekend incidents

All beaches will close at 8 p.m. and backpacks will be banned on the boardwalk at night. The city's juvenile curfew is now 11 p.m.

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Ocean City Curfew Jon Tuleya/PhillyVoice

After Ocean City police responded to 999 incidents during Memorial Day weekend, the city is imposing stricter rules, mostly aimed at teens. Ocean City's beaches will close at 8 p.m., backpacks are prohibited on the boardwalk after 8 p.m., and the curfew for juveniles is now 11 p.m. This photo shows people on the boardwalk on Sunday, May 28, 2023.

Ocean City officials are planning to close the town's beaches at 8 p.m. each night as part of broader effort to prevent underage drinking and unruly teen behavior.

The new policies, announced Tuesday by Mayor Jay Gillian, are a response to several teen disturbances over Memorial Day weekend. People of any age no longer will be permitted to carry backpacks on the beach or boardwalk after 8 p.m. The bathrooms on the boardwalk will close at 10 p.m. and the nightly curfew for juveniles will move from 1 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Ocean City police responded to 999 incidents over the holiday weekend. They included calls underage drinking, vandalism, assaults, shoplifting and the confiscation of a gun, officials said. Last year, there were 869 incidents over Memorial Day weekend. 

Multiple incidents last weekend involved teens who drank to the point of unconsciousness, officials said. Ocean City is one of only three dry towns in Cape May County, along with Wildwood Crest and Cape May Point.

In a statement on the city's website, leaders said the changes are intended primarily to "stop gatherings of drunken teens."

"I understand that these new directives will affect many people who are not teens, but it's important that we stop this type of behavior now," Gillian said. "In the end, protecting our reputation as 'America's Greatest Family Resort' will benefit everybody in Ocean City."

Gillian said an emergency meeting of city council will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday. He and Police Chief Jay Prettyman will hold a 3 p.m. news conference at Music Pier. 

Ocean City is among a handful of Jersey Shore communities that have strengthened their local laws to push back against problems they contend are a result of the state's juvenile justice reforms made in 2020.

The reforms were designed to address systemic racial disparities in New Jersey by limiting youth detentions and formal court proceedings, which can leave minors with burdensome records when they become adults. Leaders in some shore towns say the reforms have hampered police from maintaining order and have shielded teens from accountability, giving impunity to the annual crowds of young people who flock to the state's beaches.

In January, Ocean City became the first shore town to empower police by revising municipal ordinances. The city's "breach of peace" code enables officers to detain juveniles for a range of violations from littering and excessive noise to breaking curfew and vandalism. Police now can hold teens who break the law until their parents or legal guardians come to pick them up. The detainments do not result in permanent records, but they give police more authority than they previously had when issuing curbside warnings, which proved ineffective at stopping disruptive behavior.

"We want parents, grandparents and families to know that we're all in this together, and we will be holding people accountable," Gillian said. "I also want to send a message to our governor and legislators that the laws they forced on all municipalities are a threat to public safety, and they deprive families of the opportunity to enjoy the Jersey Shore."

Ocean City's new backpack ban is similar to the law recently passed in Sea Isle City, where leaders restricted the use of backpacks for all people during certain hours of the night and enacted a 10 p.m. curfew for minors. 

In Wildwood, other measures have been taken to crack down on underage drinking and other problems related to gatherings of young people. The city has banned all alcohol — whether containers are open or closed — on its beaches and boardwalk except at designated bars. Violators could face fines of up to $2,000 and potentially 90 days in jail. Wildwood police also now have the authority to detain juveniles for breach of peace violations.

Authorities in Toms River also are enforcing a 10 p.m. curfew for minors and will detain those who fail to disperse from crowds after being given two warnings by police. 

Gillian said the new rules in Ocean City are part of a citywide plan that will include police staffing, more announcements on the boardwalk and a public awareness campaign.

"I want to support the men and women of our police department," Gillian said. "They have been doing everything they can – within the law – to address this situation, and I want to give them the tools to get the job done."