No one acknowledges Seaside Heights has had its share of issues over the years more than those who have been working hard to change the borough’s image by enforcing quality-of-life ordinances, condemning derelict motels and cracking down on nightclubs and bars that have attracted trouble. But this Memorial Day weekend, it wasn’t a rowdy bar crowd, motorcycle gangs or drunken celebrities causing the fracas late at night – it was largely the result of teens refusing to disperse, engaging in fist fights and harassing business owners. Some of the videos are embedded within this story, and all have been saved and filed by Shorebeat should they be removed.
“Memorial Day has always been a problem weekend – always,” said Mayor Anthony Vaz. “This one was particularly different. There were a lot of young people who had no respect for the residents, the police department, the officers, anyone.”
Last week, Toms River Police Chief Mitch Little announced a curfew in the barrier island portions of his town, but warned that officers have been disempowered from engaging in many interactions, let alone arrests, with teens thanks to the state’s juvenile justice reform laws. In some cases, police officers not only risk their jobs, but risk being charged themselves with a third degree crime if the interaction does not comport with the controversial reform laws.
“The juveniles know” what police can and cannot do, Little said, excoriating the policies that led to out-of-control scenes in Ortley Beach last summer.
As the weekend drew on, members of social media groups from island communities actively tracked throngs of teens marching in one direction or another, culminating in disturbing videos of streets in Seaside Heights being blocked by mobs of dozens – if not hundreds – of teens at a time. At one point, a car plowed into a police vehicle. A video emerged of a violent fist fight breaking out in the middle of Ocean Terrace, with the suspect fleeing down the boardwalk until being captured by officers. Another video showed a young man paying $20 to a person for allowing him to punch him in the face. Yet another showed a group of teens brutally mocking a business owner who was trying to get them to leave his establishment.
“What we’re going to do is very simple: we’re going to monitor the next couple of weekends, and if there is a continuation of this, we’re going to put in ordinances and fight back against the intolerance of these young people who have no respect,” said Vaz.
Some of those ordinances could include those based on Ocean City’s new nuisance law, which allows teens to be detained for disturbing the peace and requiring parents to pick them up at the station. Another idea, which has been considered previously by Seaside Heights, would limit rental properties to those 21-years-old or greater. The proposal was shelved after some rental property owners openly threatened to sue the borough if the age limit were to be put in place.
“I’m not going to tolerate this,” said Vaz. “If somebody wants to sue us, that’s why we have lawyers. We’re going to protect our population of residents and visitors.”
“I was a summer police officer in the ’70s,” said Vaz, who ultimately became a teacher, earned his doctoral degree and rose to the position of superintendent of schools in multiple districts. “We had some motorcycle gangs, people who drank too much – but these were teenagers who had no respect. I saw a video this morning of a businessman trying to remove people from his store, and they were making fun of him and dancing, sticking phones in his face. I’m an educator, a retired superintendent of schools, I’ve never seen this type of behavior before and I’m not accepting it.”
Vaz said the police department and borough officials are already investigating the owners of properties who may have rented their homes illegally to underage tenants, with the intent of revoking their mercantile license. The borough council does not meet this week, however Vaz did not rule out action sooner rather than later.
“Maybe we should do it now anyway – next week at our meeting,” he said. “But if history is our guide, tradition has it that, after Memorial Day, the atmosphere does change in Seaside Heights for the better. Proms are over, high school graduations are over, and families begin to come here.”
Regardless, it is fully expected that new ordinances will be proposed to crack down on incidents like those that played out over the unofficial start of summer.
“We could go 99 different routes as far as that goes,” the mayor said. “There are state laws we can’t do much about – the marijuana laws, the drinking laws, what you can and can’t say to minors – but I’m tired of it. I want to do something that is going to protect the residents and visitors of Seaside Heights. I’m not going to tolerate this.”