By Donald Wittkowski
By the time the Sea Isle City police officers arrived Saturday at the 82nd Street beach, it was too late for the teenagers to hide their beer – even though they tried.
A poor attempt was made to cover up one can of Natural Light with a shirt. Other cans of beer were tucked away in a backpack and a bag, but Capt. Anthony Garreffi spotted the bulges and immediately knew what was inside.
“Dump them in the trash cans. I appreciate it,” Garreffi said while instructing one teenage boy to get rid of the beer.
“No problem,” the teen responded.
But the encounter between police and the teens on Saturday afternoon didn’t end there. An 18-year-old male, legally considered an adult at that age, was given a summons for drinking on the beach. His 17-year-old friend, a juvenile, endured the embarrassment of having to wait for an adult guardian to pick him up before police would release him.
Garreffi talked by phone with the 17-year-old’s father to let him know that his son was given a warning, basically a second chance.
“Your son is fine. Everything is OK,” Garreffi assured the father. “But we came in contact with him because he had an open container of alcohol. We need your permission for him to be released with the family he is staying with.”
Each summer, similar scenes play out along Sea Isle’s beachfront, as well as other resort towns on the Jersey Shore. Hoping to preserve the family-friendly atmosphere of its prized coastline, Sea Isle uses undercover police officers to catch people – many times, they are teenagers – drinking alcohol on the beaches.
This cat-and-mouse game between police and drinkers begins with the arrival of the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff of the bustling summer tourism season. Tom McQuillen, Sea Isle’s newly appointed police chief, stressed that drinking will not be tolerated on the beaches this summer.
“We want the message to get out: It’s no longer going to be acceptable to drink on the beach,” McQuillen said. “We’re going to be proactive in our efforts.”
He noted that alcohol consumption is often accompanied by other boorish behavior – including foul language and rowdiness – prompting police to aggressively target drinking on the beaches. He said no one, particularly parents who have young children, wants to be subjected to an onslaught of drunken profanity.
“The foul language is the worst part. That’s the most offensive and disruptive type of activity. That’s what we really want to focus attention on,” McQuillen said.
Sea Isle has added two new ATVs to help police patrol the beaches. The beach vehicles will allow them to cover more territory, much faster.
But not all of the police officers are in uniform. Some of the beachgoers wearing flip-flops and bathing suits may be undercover officers.
Garreffi explained that the undercover officers discreetly walk the beach, looking for drinking and other illegal activity. Once they spot it, they can simply use their cellphones to call uniformed officers who are close by.
“The plainclothes officer, he’s the lookout. He’s the observer. He’ll give us a description of the group,” Garreffi said. “Once he sees it, it’s good, because he can testify to the fact that it was an open container of alcohol.”
On Saturday, Ptl. Brandon Piper was playing the role of the undercover officer. Dressed in a T-shirt and cargo shorts, the bare-footed Piper blended in perfectly with the thousands of other beachgoers. It was on the 82nd Street beach that Piper spotted a group of teenage males drinking beer.
Garreffi and Ptl. Michael Mol were called in by Piper. Jeffrey Snyder and George Eskander, who are seasonal police officers, arrived at the scene a few minutes later on an ATV.
“Not all these beachgoers are beachgoers. They’re police officers. We’re cracking down,” Garreffi told one woman who came to 82nd Street to pick up a 17-year-old detained for underage drinking.
Before the woman arrived, Garreffi let the juvenile know he was lucky he was released with only a warning, instead of getting a summons.
“You’re 17. You kinda got away with one. You need to learn a lesson,” Garreffi said.
As Mol wrote down the name and address of an 18-year-old male who allegedly had been drinking beer, Garreffi reminded him to tell Mol the truth. Otherwise, he could face criminal charges.
“If you lie to him, you’re going to have to walk out of here in handcuffs. If not, you’ll walk out with a piece of paper,” Garreffi said, referring to the summons that was given to the 18-year-old.
A summons for drinking on the beach is similar to a traffic ticket. It is not considered a criminal offense, but it does involve a court appearance and a fine if the person is found or pleads guilty.
Officers have the discretion to let underage drinkers off with a warning, provided their parents or another adult guardian can pick them up from police custody. In legal jargon, it’s called a “curbside adjustment,” Garreffi said.
“We’ll just have their parents pick them up, right here,” Garreffi said. “But we take down all of their information in case they’re caught again.”
As Sea Isle’s new police chief, McQuillen believes it is important for his officers to use their discretion in handling drinking incidents and other illegal activity on the beaches. Sometimes, it is appropriate for police to give out a summons or a simple warning for drinking, he said.
If the officers become too heavy-handed, Sea Isle would risk getting the reputation of being “a police state” that is unfriendly to tourists, McQuillen explained.
“Every officer has discretion. Hopefully, they exercise discretion in appropriate cases,” he said.
On Saturday, police used their discretion when they were called to break up a large group of teenagers drinking on the beach at 93rd Street. By the time police arrived, most of the estimated 100 teens had scattered, but four of them were caught.
Given a warning, the four teens – two girls and two boys – waited with police at the beach end of 93rd Street while their parents were called to come pick them up. This was another case of “curbside adjustment.”
Ptl. Vince Haugh, who serves as the police department’s juvenile officer, was overheard on the phone talking to one parent.
“Is it OK if I release your daughter to her friend’s parents?” Haugh said. “I don’t want you to have to come down from Pennsylvania.”
One man who was heading to the beach at 93rd Street gave the teens a disgusted look and thanked the police officers for breaking up the drinking party.
“Thank you,” the man said. “They do this all the time.”
During the summer of 2016, Sea Isle dealt with an outbreak of underage drinking, unruly behavior, loitering and curfew violations mainly occurring over the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends. Police responded with what they called a “zero tolerance” enforcement program consisting of arrests and summonses.
Starting with Memorial Day weekend, Sea Isle will continue with its strict enforcement program to clamp down on drinking and rowdiness on the beach this summer, McQuillen emphasized.
“We’re really trying to make an early statement,” he said. “We’re not going to tolerate it, and it will be addressed.”