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Avalon police once rounded up teens in a white bus. Wildwood police patrolled the beach with a breathalyzer. Why this summer is different.

As large groups of teenagers gather night after night on beaches and boardwalks in Ocean City and elsewhere at the Jersey Shore this summer, police are being ... chill. But they're not happy about it.

Police keep an eye on large groups of teens gathered on the beach near 11th Street in Ocean CIty, N.J. on July 27, 2021.
Police keep an eye on large groups of teens gathered on the beach near 11th Street in Ocean CIty, N.J. on July 27, 2021.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

OCEAN CITY, N.J. — The group of teenagers from Bucks County and elsewhere are jumping, singing, and shouting at one another on the Ocean City beach, just off 11th Street.

They are wearing T-shirts from lacrosse tournaments, high school tennis teams, and Wake Forest University, leaning against fragile dune fencing, blasting music amid the euphoria of a typical boozy adolescent night down the Shore.

But they know the drill. At 10 p.m. on this weekday, they will be gently urged to leave the beach, with a labor-intensive escort of Ocean City police officers, some on ATVs, others on foot, more waiting on the boardwalk on bicycles. The cops engage, joke, cajole, watch, monitor, walk through the crowd, watch from the edges, lead the way, corral from the back.

What they’re not doing is rounding up or hauling in, looking for alcohol, searching backpacks, or sniffing for weed. The police say they’re not allowed. Welcome to Summer 2021, with its own brand of weirdness.

In past summers, Avalon police used a repurposed white school bus dubbed the “Magic Bus” to round up teens at parties where alcohol was being served. Wildwood police famously patrolled their beaches with a breathalyzer, with mixed results.

But this summer, even as large groups of teenagers gather night after night on beaches and boardwalks in Jersey Shore towns, the cops are being ... chill.

The police departments are not happy about it. They blame New Jersey’s new law that legalizes adult-use cannabis and a Dec. 3 directive from the attorney general, both of which seek to set limits on how police interact with juveniles, particularly juveniles suspected of drinking or smoking marijuana, or violating local ordinances.

“I definitely think there’s a chilling effect on the officers,” said Wildwood Deputy Police Chief Joseph Murphy. “It defies logic for us. It goes against how we learned to be police officers. It’s made policing much more restrictive.

“Some of the public may view that as a good thing,” he said. “But if you ask the person living on side streets that has their furniture stolen at 4 a.m., they’d rather have had that person taken in earlier in the night.”

Ocean City says it has logged contact with 9,222 juveniles for “curbside warnings,” between May 21 and July 25, a tally required by the new directive on juvenile justice reform from the state attorney general. The racial breakdown, also required by the state, is 6,782 white, 1,739 Black, 442 Hispanic, 162 Asian, 25 other, and 72 unknown. Avalon logged more than 400 curbside warnings since April, plus 49 incidents where large groups of teens were dispersed. (Nearly all were white.)

Ocean City Police Chief Jay Prettyman says the new law has emboldened the youths who gather nightly, some in town on family vacations, others taking NJ Transit from towns on the mainland.

“We’ve accurately predicted the juveniles we’re dealing with have very little fear of any ramifications for their actions,” said Prettyman. “They’re well-versed in what the police are allowed to do with the new law. We would much rather be able to control their behavior. It’s not really working. We’re just barely maintaining them in a place so they don’t commit crimes somewhere else.”

‘They go to Wawa after that’

Advocates for the new law and regulations point to data that show Cape May County having the highest arrest rate in the state for cannabis for all but five years between 2000 and 2013, a statistic no doubt fueled by the outsize summer populations.

They say the regulations are in response to other jurisdictions where the legalization of cannabis for adults led police to turn all their focus to juveniles, often with a disproportionate effect on Black and brown youths. The directive talks about “presumptions” toward curbside warnings, which the state argues still leaves police with discretion.

The New Jersey Legislature added in alcohol use, which still carried large fines for youths, to the new regulations in order to equalize the police response with that for cannabis, and instructed police departments to issue curbside warnings on first encounters with youths. The original legislation also prohibited police from notifying parents, but that was subsequently amended to allow parental notification.

“A record or law enforcement contact can have lasting impacts and can be really disruptive, sometimes traumatizing, for youths,” said Sarah Fajardo, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

“The bill was intentionally crafted to provide some protections for youth. Law enforcement has options for different methods of crowd control.”

Towns are adapting in different ways.

In Ocean City, the routine of dispersing the teens from the beach, which they close at 10 p.m. on weekdays, 11 p.m. on the weekend, plays out night after night. The later weekend hour is to prevent a flood of teens onto the boardwalk while it is still busy with families.

In Avalon, where officials put out a blazing press release in July blaming Gov. Phil Murphy for problems with large groups of rowdy teens, new ordinances closing the beach and boardwalk at night have given police more discretion.

Police now clear the beach first, then the promenade, then track the groups of youths as they find new gathering spots, said Avalon Police Chief Jeffrey Christopher.

“Then we clear the next place,” Christopher said. “They go to Wawa after that. It lingers on until eventually they disperse and go home.”

Prettyman, the Ocean City chief, said the town already tried to steer away from criminalizing youth behavior, citing groups of bicyclists who rode down the middle of streets in the spring, leading to numerous complaints on Facebook from people urging police to crack down.

The police department held a successful bicycle event instead, among other community-based responses.

“In Ocean City, we have always been fair and consistent with enforcement of any rules with our juveniles,” Prettyman said. “We’ve always emphasized less formal actions. We’ve had highest number of station house adjustments for several years now. Now we don’t even have the ability to teach them they made a poor decision.”

“Two years ago, a juvenile in the middle of the boardwalk with a beer in the hand, you’d take them into custody, call their parents and have parents pick them up,” he said. “Now if we see that same kid in the middle of the boardwalk with a beer can, he gets a warning, and we send notice to parents.”

In a written response to The Inquirer, Steven Barnes, a spokesperson for the attorney general, stressed that the new regulations, while “designed to promote public safety and limit unnecessary criminal prosecution of juveniles,” does not prevent law enforcement “from taking appropriate action when necessary.” He urged departments to contact the AG’s Office if they need clarification (presumably instead of issuing press releases).

The cannabis law also states that police themselves could be charged with a third-degree “Official Deprivation of Civil Rights,” if they violate a juvenile’s rights against a search stemming from the smell of cannabis or suspicious of alcohol, or investigate a juvenile for too long a time.

For some police departments, used to proactively enforcing laws against underage drinking and marijuana use, the laws defy logic.

“If they try to do a search based off of plain sight, which would be common sense, I saw you with the beer, I saw you with the marijuana, if that person conceals that, the officer has to stop,” said Wildwood’s Murphy. “They have that criminal charge hanging over their head. It’s not something that we’re used to.”

In Avalon, police still feel hamstrung in their ability to respond to juveniles violating town ordinances, like jumping off bridges or damaging municipal property, Christopher said.

‘We were aggressive with it’

It’s a long way from the defiant years in the late 1990s when Avalon and Mayor Martin Pagliughi (still Avalon’s mayor) devised the strategy of driving the white “Magic Bus” around town busting into private parties and hauling any juvenile within sight of a beer into the police station.

Avalon ultimately settled a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the juveniles for $1.8 million.

Wildwood’s brush with beach breathalyzer patrols has also ended, said Murphy, the deputy chief. In 2018, breathalyzer-wielding police were involved in a violent encounter on the beach with Emily Weinman, then 20, of Philadelphia, who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct but also collected $325,000 in a settlement of her federal lawsuit.

Murphy said the breathalyzer patrols over that Memorial Day weekend were due to complaints about the North end beach being “out of control,” with underage drinkers.

“Being honest about it, we were aggressive with it,” said Murphy. “We were having other issues, getting complaints from the business owners. We didn’t seek it out.”

By all accounts, the crowds of young people are bigger than in past years in Shore towns like Avalon, Beach Haven, Ocean City, and North Wildwood. Residents are reporting damaged property, public urination, and crowds of teens they feel are intimidating to families as they move through town.

Murphy believes the restrictions on enforcing drug and alcohol use have only opened up the possibility of these youths committing more serious crimes as the nights wear on.

He believes that the crackdowns, which in the past mostly led to warnings or so-called station house adjustments, more typically a ride home to parents, or to the police station for a pickup, saved both the teens and potential victims from anything worse.

“From a law enforcement side, we look at things from the perspective of ‘Hey, if we get them while they’re drinking a beer on the boardwalk, maybe it stops the aggravated assault two hours from now.’”