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May 28, 2024

Cape May County leaders' warning after chaotic Memorial Day weekend: 'Bad actions will not be tolerated'

Crowds of juveniles prompted a state of emergency that shut down Wildwood's boardwalk. In Ocean City, a 15-year-old boy was stabbed.

Crime Beaches
Wildwood sign Jon Tuleya/PhillyVoice

Wildwood officials declared a state of emergency and shut down the boardwalk early Monday morning due to "an irrepressible number of calls for service" that amounted to "civil unrest" during the weekend.

Multiple incidents in Wildwood and Ocean City disrupted a busy Memorial Day weekend, prompting local leaders to denounce the unruly behavior that has become an annual problem for Jersey Shore communities.

Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland suggested he may adopt a stricter approach with teens and young adults who cause problems on the boardwalk and elsewhere.

"For those who come to our communities to create unrest, be forewarned that your bad decisions and bad actions will not be tolerated and law enforcement will use all legal measures to arrest and charge all violators," Sutherland said. "Instead of capturing positive memories you will be issued charges to answer to and possible permanent records that will impact your future."

In Wildwood, officials declared a state of emergency and shut down the boardwalk early Monday morning due to "an irrepressible number of calls for service" that amounted to "civil unrest" during the weekend. The city had brought in police from other communities for assistance because there were too many complaints to respond to all of them, officials said. Most were related to crowds of teenagers and young adults. The declaration was lifted after a few hours.

In Ocean City, a 15-year-old boy was stabbed during a brawl Saturday night on the 1000 block of the boardwalk. The teen was treated at the scene and an investigation is underway to find the suspect, police said.

Sutherland said Wildwood leaders "took the proper action" by declaring the state of emergency.

"Everyone in our shore communities in Cape May County can be assured that law enforcement is here to make our visitors, families and residents safe," Sutherland said.

Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. blamed the trend of unruly behavior on state juvenile justice reforms during the COVID-19 pandemic. The reforms, driven by efforts to address racial disparities, emphasized having police give teens curbside warnings for a variety of minor offenses to limit their mistakes from impacting their futures.

"Wildwood will not tolerate unruly, undisciplined, unparented children nor will we stand by while the laws of the state tie the hands of the police," Troiano said.

Ocean City enacted local ordinances last year to empower their police to issue "breach of peace" violations for a variety of offenses. Under these laws, police can take juveniles into custody and have their parents or guardians pick them up at the station. The offenses do not remain on teens' records like more serious crimes do, but they give police more leeway to take juveniles into custody for violations.  

In Ocean City, Wildwood and Sea Isle City, earlier juvenile curfews and other restrictions have been adopted to discourage unruly behavior in places where crowds are most likely to gather. Measures have included reduced boardwalk and beach hours. Sea Isle City banned backpacks on its promenade after 10 p.m. during the summer and Wildwood now prohibits alcohol on all beaches and the boardwalk, regardless of whether containers are open or closed. 

On Sunday, Cape May County Commissioner Director Len Desiderio said he's been working with municipalities and legislators for the last three years to come up with solutions to juvenile disturbances. Last Memorial Day, Ocean City police said they received nearly 1,000 reports of misbehavior by young people over the course of the holiday weekend. The year before, there had been 869 reports of such incidents.

"Trenton has everything backward," Desiderio said. "So far, despite the efforts of our local legislators, our pleas for help have mostly fallen on deaf ears in Trenton."

Desiderio said he plans to meet with Sutherland and the Cape May County Sheriff's Office to talk about how resources can be deployed to better support local police in problem areas. He vowed not to "let these thugs steal summer" from people who visit and live at the shore.

The Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority said the state of emergency that restricted boardwalk access on Monday morning helped with enforcing the city's curfew and prevented serious incidents from occurring.

Sutherland called on residents of Cape May County to continue reporting illegal activity in their communities. He said the extended police responses in Wildwood and Ocean City were effective in stopping what could been more serious injuries or property damage in both cities.