By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Soon, Sea Isle City’s beaches and oceanfront Promenade will be overflowing with tens of thousands of summer visitors and vacationers.
“They’re going to have the same fun that they always have,” Mayor Leonard Desiderio said.
But Sea Isle has approved two new laws to give police the “tools” to prevent troublemakers from ruining the fun for everyone else.
A 10 p.m. curfew for minors under the age of 18 and a backpack ban between the hours of 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. for juveniles and adults began Monday night and will remain in effect until Sept. 15.
Although the laws technically started Monday night, Desiderio said police probably won’t start enforcing them in earnest until Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff for the bustling summer tourism season at the Jersey Shore.
“We want everyone to have a good time in Sea Isle. I hope we never have to use it,” Desiderio said of the curfew and backpack ban.
Sea Isle is responding to an outburst of rowdy behavior, ranging from public drinking to vandalism to theft, primarily committed by groups of teenagers or young adults the past two summers in towns along the Jersey Shore.
In Sea Isle’s case, city officials and police are looking to gain the upper hand by preventing large crowds of unruly teens from congregating on the beaches or Promenade late at night and causing trouble.
“It’s another tool that police will use,” Desiderio said in an interview Monday.
Desiderio and City Solicitor Paul Baldini say the new measures have been carefully researched to make sure they are constitutional.
Juveniles will not be allowed out from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. on the beaches, the Promenade and the beach blocks unless they have a legitimate reason. There will be exceptions for minors who are accompanied by adults, are going to or returning from their summer jobs or are participating in formal activities such as recreation programs.
Police will give juveniles at least two warnings to go home if they are out after curfew. Only if the juveniles ignore repeated warnings will police have the authority to take them into custody and call their parents. They will not be arrested.
“We’re not trying to get anyone in trouble. We’re not looking to give anyone a record,” Desiderio said while stressing juveniles will not be arrested or given a summons for violating the curfew.
In another measure to help police prevent trouble from breaking out on the Promenade, adults and juveniles will not be allowed to carry backpacks between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. each night.
There are exceptions in the backpack ban for police officers, fishermen out on the beach, equipment used by journalists and people carrying medical devices.
Desiderio said the backpack ban will make it harder for anyone to conceal alcoholic beverages, weapons or other contraband while out in public.
“With these backpacks, you don’t know what’s in them,” he said.
He noted that Sea Isle is simply part of a growing trend among shopping malls and retail stores to prohibit backpacks as a way to fight crime.
Adults and juveniles will receive verbal warnings if they violate Sea Isle’s backpack ban. After repeated warnings, police officers will have the discretion to take it to “the next level,” Sea Isle Police Chief Anthony Garreffi said.
For adults, that may mean they could be slapped with fines ranging from $25 to $100 for carrying backpacks after hours.
Juveniles, on the other hand, may be taken to a police substation, where they will wait until their parents or legal guardians come to pick them up. Police are planning to place a new substation at 40th Street and the Promenade over the summer.
No backpacks will be searched or confiscated, city officials said.
Desiderio said Sea Isle officials decided to toughen their local ordinances after repeatedly expressing frustration with state laws that place limits on police in dealing with troublemaking juveniles. For instance, under state law police may only give “curbside warnings” to teens who are drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana in public.
“We have been begging Trenton for some kind of relief. It has fallen on deaf ears,” Desiderio said of the state Legislature.
At the same time, he emphasized that Sea Isle has absolutely no intention of hassling anyone or becoming “a police state.”
“We’re not going to be a police state,” he said bluntly.
Desiderio believes that the vast majority of visitors to Sea Isle – teens or adults – simply want to enjoy themselves without disrupting the summer vacation season. The curfew and backpack ban are designed for the few who want to cause trouble, he noted.
“Most of them are very nice kids,” he said.
Sea Isle is not planning to launch a public education campaign or post warning signs to alert visitors of the curfew or backpack ban, Desiderio said. He believes that the new laws will spread fast enough through word of mouth.
“Word will filter out. Believe me, it will,” he said.