By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
They will blend in inconspicuously among the customers and employees at Sea Isle City’s bars and liquor stores.
Undercover police officers dressed in plainclothes will be on the lookout for underage customers flashing a fake ID to make an illegal purchase of alcohol.
Sea Isle has been awarded an $8,360 grant to fund its annual “Cops in Shops” program that targets underage alcohol purchases during the busy summer tourism season between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Police Chief Tom McQuillen said Sea Isle doesn’t have a serious problem with underage drinking – something he believes is due in large part to the city’s participation in the Cops in Shops program.
“It’s something that we want to make sure doesn’t become a bigger problem,” he said in an interview Thursday.
For underage customers, the consequences are serious if they get caught using a fake ID. Police detain the offenders and give them a summons that requires them to appear in court. They risk fines and having their driver’s license suspended, McQuillen said.
New Jersey, however, has undertaken a dramatic shift in the way it now handles underage drinking and marijuana use. Instead of arresting them, police will now give people under 21 years old a written warning if they are caught drinking alcohol or smoking pot.
The downgrading from arrests to warnings for young people was part of a package of bills legalizing recreational marijuana in New Jersey for adults 21 and older. Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bills into law on Feb. 22.
Sea Isle, meanwhile, is just one of a number of Jersey Shore towns that participate in the Cops in Shops program each summer. The New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety distributes grants to the towns to fund the program, now in its 25th year.
“These municipalities have observed an influx of individuals under the legal age to engage in alcoholic beverage activity during the summer months when the seaside attractions lure people for vacations and weekend getaways,” the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office said in a statement.
Sea Isle police work cooperatively with the bar owners to try to catch anyone under the legal drinking age of 21 who attempts to use false identification to enter a liquor store or nightclub.
“We have a really good relationship with our licensees,” McQuillen said. “The bar owners and liquor stores cooperate with the program. They’re all great partners with us.”
Bar and liquor store owners have a vested interest in partnering with police for the Cops in Shops program. They risk losing their licenses if they violate the law by flagrantly selling alcohol to underage drinkers, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
Bars and liquor stores that take part in the program are supposed to post signs and other material warning underage customers that undercover police officers may be watching.
Normally, Sea Isle receives a grant of around $6,600 for the Cops in Shops program. McQuillen explained that the amount was increased to $8,360 in 2020 because the program has been so successful in helping to deter underage customers from buying alcohol. For 2021, the grant will be $8,360 again.
Arrests for underage customers using fake IDs declined in Sea Isle during the summer of 2020 because of the pandemic shutdown and crowd restrictions imposed on bars and restaurants after the COVID-19 outbreak, McQuillen said.
With the emergence of the COVID-19 vaccine and things slowly returning to normal, the bar scene is expected to be livelier this summer than in 2020 – with the possibility that more underage customers will try to sneak into the liquor stores and nightclubs.
McQuillen, however, is warning underage customers that the person standing next to them in the bar or liquor store may not be an employee or another customer. It could be an undercover police officer ready to make an arrest.
“They blend in as best as they can with the staff and customers,” he said.