SHARE
Mayor Leonard Desiderio will unveil his plan in February.

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI

Losing patience with the state Legislature, Mayor Leonard Desiderio said Sea Isle City is drafting new local laws to give police more power to prevent rowdy teenagers from disrupting the vital summer tourism season.

Desiderio broadly outlined the city’s evolving strategy to crack down on groups of unruly teens and young adults that have been gathering on the beaches, the Promenade and other parts of town for the past two summers.

“Over the past year, I’ve been consistent with my message that we are going to deal with the issues we’ve had in the past with disorderly conduct – specifically with juveniles and young adults,” Desiderio said in a statement he read during a City Council meeting Tuesday.

He vowed that regardless of what may happen at the state level to address the unruly behavior, Sea Isle “will do what we have to do locally to ensure premier public safety.”

“Along those lines, I want to mention that our solicitor is in the process of drafting local ordinances that will give our police additional tools to maintain the peace,” he said.

Desiderio intends to submit his plan to City Council next month for its review. He hopes Council will formally introduce the proposed ordinances by the end of February and adopt them into law by the end of March.

As he has repeatedly done in the past, Desiderio declared that he is growing frustrated with a lack of movement in the Legislature for new laws to help Sea Isle and other beach communities at the Jersey Shore deal with rowdiness.

“We have been very patient, and will continue to work with our state legislators, but we will wait no longer to do what we need to do as a local government,” he said.

“I am going to repeat what I’ve said in the past, and I’m going to continue to repeat it so it’s loud and clear: We welcome everyone in Sea Isle City. We love our residents, and we love our visitors. But if you can’t behave, this is not the place for you,” he continued.

Sea Isle’s Promenade is a popular spot at night for teenagers and young adults during the summer tourism season.

For two years, Desiderio has repeatedly criticized state laws enacted in 2021 as part of Gov. Phil Murphy’s juvenile justice reforms. The reforms put restrictions on police on how far they can go in their interactions with teens. Murphy wants to avoid saddling teenagers a criminal record that could hurt them later on when they try to enter college or begin their careers.

Instead of placing juveniles under arrest or taking them into custody, police officers are required under state law to give them “curbside warnings” for minor crimes such as underage drinking or marijuana possession.

Elected officials and police chiefs at the Jersey Shore have complained for two summers in a row that rowdy teens have little to fear now of being arrested, which has emboldened them to commit crimes such as theft, vandalism, underage public drinking and smoking marijuana.

Tougher laws targeting rowdy teens and young adults at the Jersey Shore gained greater urgency after an unsanctioned pop-up H2oi car rally in Wildwood on Sept. 24 turned into chaos in the streets, resulting in the deaths of two people struck by a fleeing driver who was later arrested and indicted.

Desiderio has been working with Republican lawmakers representing Atlantic and Cape May counties on proposed state laws to “swing the pendulum back” in favor of the police to deal with rowdy teens.

The proposed laws include one bill that would allow police to detain juveniles for underage drinking or smoking marijuana. The teens would be taken back to the police station and their parents or legal guardians would be called to come pick them up. They would not be formally arrested, though.

Republican officials in Cape May County have blamed state Democrats for not moving fast enough on their appeals for help. Desiderio, a Republican who also serves as director of the Cape May County Board of Commissioners, has expressed hope that Democrats and Republicans will work in bipartisan fashion to craft a plan to help the shore towns.

“We’re just trying to give the Legislature a little more time,” Desiderio said in an interview after the Sea Isle Council meeting.

Sea Isle plans to give police more power to deal with rowdy juveniles.

In the meantime, Sea Isle may follow what Ocean City has done at the local level to crack down on disruptive juveniles, Desiderio indicated.

“It may be similar to what Ocean City is doing. We’re still fine-tuning it,” he said.

Ocean City’s Council gave final approval Jan. 12 to a new ordinance that will classify a litany of minor offenses such as underage drinking, curfew violations and littering as a “breach of the peace” to allow police to detain juveniles who allegedly break local laws.

Essentially, minor offenses are being elevated into a more serious category falling under the broad umbrella of disturbing the peace.

The new ordinance is 22 pages long. It covers such things as underage drinking, curfew violations, beach tag violations, smoking in smoke-free parks or playgrounds, littering, riding bikes on the Boardwalk after hours, excessive noise, graffiti, setting off illegal fireworks and juveniles misrepresenting their age.

Under the ordinance, police will now be able to take underage offenders into custody and call their parents or legal guardians to pick them up at the police station.

Desiderio, in his role as Sea Isle’s mayor and director of the County Board of Commissioners, attended Ocean City’s Jan. 12 Council meeting to discuss the shore’s growing problem with rowdy teens.

He praised Ocean City officials for adopting the new ordinance, calling it “a great first step” in efforts to break up large groups of unruly teens that gather on the beaches, boardwalks or other popular hangouts during the summer tourism season.