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May 30, 2024

Ocean City leaders say police need more power in wake of boardwalk stabbing

'We feel like we've lost ground somewhat,' Police Chief Bill Campbell said of efforts to manage juvenile crowds.

Government Police
Ocean City Police Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Memorial Day weekend in Ocean City was tainted by disruptive behavior from young people. Police and other officials say they need better ways for law enforcement to deal with the problem moving forward.

Ocean City leaders held a news conference on the boardwalk Thursday afternoon to vouch for better solutions to prevent the kinds of disturbances that took place over Memorial Day weekend, including a fight that led to the stabbing of a 15-year-old boy on Saturday night.

"The incidents this Memorial Day weekend were unacceptable," Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian said.

He said more than 1,300 curbside warnings were issued by police over the weekend, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

In the days since the stabbing in Ocean City and the state of emergency declared Monday in Wildwood because of large crowds of young people, law enforcement officials in Cape May County have been calling for the state to reevaluate the juvenile justice reforms that were passed by the attorney general's office in 2020. The reforms were meant to address racial disparities and avoid saddling juveniles with records that could limit their future prospects.

"Unfortunately, what the attorney general did at the time was put the handcuffs on the police officers," Cape May County Commissioner Director Len Desiderio said Thursday.

Jersey Shore communities have struggled to contain large crowds of teens and young adults over the last several summers. The trend, often magnified by videos that spread widely on social media, has left local leaders concerned that it could discourage law-abiding people from visiting their beaches.

Ocean City Police Chief Bill Campbell said police officers have had limited power to address common problems like underage drinking and marijuana use. He said when officers spot these behaviors, they're only able to give juveniles written warnings and confiscate their alcohol and marijuana. And in the absence of a clear reason to investigate teens, police can't require that juveniles share their names, addresses or IDs.

"Over the last three to four years, in totality, we feel like we've lost ground somewhat," Campbell said.

The New Jersey Office of Attorney General did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the complaints from law enforcement and other officials in recent days. On Wednesday, New Jersey State Policemens' Benevolent Association President Peter Andreyev also took aim at the state's laws.

"The recent juvenile outbursts are a sign that more needs to be done to allow police to protect our communities," Andreyev said. "This past weekend is just more proof that the law is broken. There needs to be real consequences for violent, drunken, and dangerous behavior for both juveniles and adults."

New Jersey Assemblyman Antwan L. McClellan (R), who represents parts of Cape May and Cumberland counties, said he and his colleagues plan to work on legislation that gives police more legal tools to discourage and respond to unruly juveniles.

"This is not a partisan issue," McClellan said. "It's up and down the coast."

Last year, Ocean City led the way in attempting to empower local police by passing a local ordinance for "breach of peace" violations, which cover a wide range of behaviors from vandalism to excessive noise and setting off fireworks. Instead of just giving juveniles curbside warnings, the ordinance lets police officers take them to the station to be held and picked up by a parent or guardian. The city also imposed an 8 p.m. curfew for its beaches, an 11 p.m. curfew citywide for juveniles and a backpack ban on the boardwalk.

In most cases, juveniles who are detained in Ocean City are not formally arrested and charged. They're given stationhouse adjustments that require them to complete community service, which could including picking up trash and washing cars.

"That's usually the route we go for first-time offenders instead of charges," Campbell said.

Saturday night's fight on the boardwalk led to stationhouse adjustments for at least seven juveniles who were involved. The stabbing suspect is still at large and has not been identified, Campbell said. All of the teens who have been identified knew each other and were visiting Ocean City from communities in Atlantic County.

"No outside vacationers or residents of Ocean City were targeted," Campbell said.

The city may consider adopting additional local ordinances to support police, but Campbell declined to share any specifics about what that could entail. He said the first step will be to deploy 20 new seasonal officers to the boardwalk to help monitor crowds.

"Not all these kids are bad; 95% of them are great," Desiderio said. "It's only a small percentage that stir things up."

But Desiderio pleaded with parents to keep tabs on their kids and make sure their whereabouts are known this summer.

"They can't come to our county and disrupt things. We will not allow it," he said. "We're not going to tolerate any B.S."