N.J. Police Union: 'Real Consequences' Needed for Unruly Teens on Boardwalks

May 31, 2024
The New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, along with other officials, is asking for the state to reassess reforms that limit when police can take minor offenders to the station.

Troubled by crowds of teenagers on Jersey Shore boardwalks over Memorial Day weekend, some local officials are calling for a change to state laws they say prevent cops from adequately dealing with rowdy kids.

Officials in Avalon, Seaside Heights and Sea Isle, as well as the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, are asking the state to reassess juvenile justice reforms approved in 2020 that limit when police officers can take young people committing minor offenses to the police station.

It is unclear how widespread the problem of teens on the boardwalks is at the Jersey Shore. Wildwood declared a state of emergency over Memorial Day weekend after officials said teens contributed to “civil unrest” that forced the closure of the boardwalk. However, city officials did not cite any specific incidents involving teenagers or what type of behavior they considered “civil unrest.”

Ocean City officials said a 15-year-old was stabbed last weekend when groups of teens from three municipalities got into a large fight on the boardwalk. Police issued over 1,300 curbside warnings to juveniles and took 23 teens to the police station, mostly for shoplifting and fights, but did not charge them.

Supporters say the juvenile justice reforms put in place by the state Attorney General and Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration in 2020 have helped cut down on the number of young people, especially Black and Hispanic teens, locked up by cops. But, critics say the rules have taken control away from police officers and shielded some teens from taking responsibility for their actions.

“The recent juvenile outbursts are a sign that more needs to be done to allow police to protect our communities. This past weekend is just more proof that the law is broken and that there needs to be real consequences for violent, drunken, and dangerous behavior for both juveniles and adults,” said Peter Andreyev, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association.

“Bail reform needs to be completely rethought and police need the authority to bring violent or inebriated juveniles back to the station for their parents to take responsibility for their actions. Having no consequences for bad behavior has proved itself again to be a failed criminal justice policy,” Andreyev said in a statement.

Wildwood, Ocean City and Seaside Heights each had incidents requiring police responses on Saturday or Sunday, ranging from a false alarm about a shooter that sent crowds running to a stabbing of a 15-year-old in a large brawl. Videos on social media showed large fights in some areas and groups of noisy teens on the boardwalks in other areas.

Wildwood police closed the city’s boardwalk overnight on Memorial Day and declared a state of emergency. The boardwalk reopened the next morning.

“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. We wholeheartedly support the City of Wildwood Police Department in protecting this community from these nuisance crowds on our boardwalk and in the city,” Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. said Monday in a statement.

He did not say if any teens were arrested or say what behavior was deemed unruly.

Murphy pushed back Tuesday, saying Memorial Day weekend was not chaotic when he answered questions on News 12 New Jersey’s “Ask Gov. Murphy” program.

“The weekend was overwhelmingly a successful weekend, including even in those towns” that had incidents, Murphy said.

The governor said he’s heard feedback over the past few years “that law enforcement didn’t have enough support” to go after teenagers committing minor offenses.

Many of the critics of juvenile justice reform rules have been Republican mayors and Jersey Shore officials who say the Democratic governor’s administration has made it more difficult for their police to deal with teenagers at the Shore.

Murphy said some changes have been made. He signed a law in January that revised some of the circumstances when police officers can be punished for how they deal with juveniles suspected of possessing alcohol or weed.

“We think that has put us in a much better place than we were a couple of years ago,” Murphy said on the “Ask Gov. Murphy” program.

”It takes a village. It’s law enforcement, it’s moms and dads, it’s the kids themselves, it’s their coaches, teachers. So let’s all come together here and make sure we have a great summer on the Shore and on our lakes,” said Murphy.

The law signed in January was a step in the right direction, but “it doesn’t do enough to allow for our law enforcement agencies to take control of the situation,” said Cape May County Commissioner Leonard C. Desiderio, who’s also the Republican mayor of Sea Isle City.

“While no one, including myself, wants to see our juveniles have a criminal record, we have to give our law enforcement greater opportunity to hold our juvenile wrongdoers accountable,” said Desiderio.

The juvenile justice reforms approved in 2020 included a 33-page directive from the state attorney general’s office that lists a variety of steps officials should take when dealing with minors in their communities. They include giving face-to-face warnings to juveniles committing minor offense instead of taking them to a police station in many cases.

The directive also said if a young person has damaged property, police should meet with his or her family members at a police station for a “station house adjustment” and consider writing up an agreement to fix the damage.

In addition to criticizing the new rules issued in 2020, some Shore officials have also questioned the 2021 cannabis legalization law, which downgraded marijuana and alcohol possession offenses for minors.

Social justice advocates argue that law is fair and still provides broad authority for law enforcement to police unlawful conduct.

“The goal was to try to interrupt the entry points for youth coming into contact with the legal system and incurring fees and fines, which disproportionately harms youth of color,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo.

Under the law, a person younger than 21 who possesses or consumes six ounces or less of cannabis or marijuana will face a series of written warnings issued by police rather than immediate fines. If the person is under age 18, the person’s parent or guardian would also receive written notice. Subsequent offenses would require parental notification and a referral to a community-based service such as drug education or a treatment center.

“Law enforcement are still able to provide warnings for possession and if there’s rowdy behavior, there’s still tools at their disposal to address that,” said Fajardo.

While the legislation is well-intended, Avalon Mayor John McCorristin said it simply does not work in Shore communities where the population can surge during the summer season.

“The one-size-fits-all approach by the state for enacting juvenile justice reforms fails to support reasonable efforts by law enforcement in beach communities to deal with large crowds,” said McCorristin, a Republican.

Avalon and other seashore communities have struggled “to recruit and retain summer police officers as juveniles freely express to law enforcement that they know they cannot be touched and have limited abilities to hold juveniles accountable for their actions,” the mayor said.

Officials have tried to find other ways to crack down on unruly behavior.

Last year, Ocean City passed an ordinance that allows police officers to detain minors for a wide variety of infractions — including littering, vandalism and setting off illegal fireworks — as “breach of peace” violations.

Under the local law, teens can be taken to the police station and their parents will be called to pick them up, even if they are not charged.

Other Jersey Shore towns have implemented new rules aimed at teens in recent years, including curfews and early beach closures.

Last year, Seaside Heights passed a resolution closing beaches at 8 p.m. and implementing other restrictions aimed at minors.

Seaside Heights Mayor Anthony Vaz said the borough partnered with Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, Ocean County Sheriff’s Office, and the regional SWAT team to try and prepare for this year’s Memorial Day weekend.

“We were visible, truly visible, and it still was havoc,” said Vaz, a Republican.

The biggest havoc was caused by a false report of shots fired, which caused crowds of people to panic and flee the area, according to video of the scene.

The reports were false, said Vaz. But, the town was still dealing with young people causing problems, he said.

“Are we looking to ruin a kid’s life for kicking over a garbage can? No. We’re looking at kids who are totally disrespectful to law enforcement, to local businesses, and to visiting families,” said Vaz.

More than 20 Jersey Shore towns have established curfews for the summer season in an effort to prevent beach pop-up parties promoted on social media and disorder on boardwalks. But some officials are saying that local curfews are not enough to solve the problem.

“What needs to be done is the mayors from up north, to all the way down to Cape May, we have got to get together and brainstorm,” said Vaz.

“Let’s rewrite the laws so that police have some teeth,” Vaz said.

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