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Inside the Chaos: How Seaside Heights Handled Memorial Day Madness, And Social Media’s Role

A fracas on the Seaside Heights boardwalk, Memorial Day Weekend 2024. (Source: @4ever_Stressed/ X)

A fracas on the Seaside Heights boardwalk, Memorial Day Weekend 2024. (Source: @4ever_Stressed/ X)

In the late hours of the evening on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Seaside Heights Mayor Anthony Vaz received a text message from Gov. Phil Murphy, asking if the borough needed additional resources to handle what had become a chaotic stampede of youths on the boardwalk, Vaz recalled Wednesday as he and other borough officials described their response to the scene which made headlines across the region.

By the time the message was received, however, the disturbance had been quashed, mainly due to a plan that officials began developing last fall in anticipation of the very scenario that played out.

“We were concerned from Memorial Day 2023 – it was very, very bad last year,” said Vaz. “We thought we would get ahead of the game, so we met and we talked. We had the sheriff’s office, the prosecutor’s office, SWAT teams, dogs, but the numbers outdid us.”

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Vaz and other officials said in the decades they have lived in town, they never saw the boardwalk and adjacent areas so crowded with teens as the 2024 holiday. While many of the juveniles involved in the incident were staying in town, the majority were dropped off by parents who left the teens to their own devices. Police Chief Tommy Boyd said his officers arrested 18 juveniles, and will hold their parents responsible under the law.

“I locked up 18 juveniles and we charged the parents,” said Boyd. “Don’t blame the cops, don’t blame the mayor and council – blame the parents. They’re pulling up, dropping their kids off, giving them some money and saying, ‘hey, go buy beer.’ And we’re left to babysit.”

Suddenly, around 8 p.m., what had been a crowded, but under-control, boardwalk devolved into chaos.

“When somebody yells out ‘shots fired,’ how do you stop a stampede?” Vaz asked rhetorically.

The rumor – unfounded – of a shooter on the boardwalk sent thousands of teens running down local streets. There were also some confrontations between groups. The incident could be linked to a disturbing prank spreading via social media, the police chief said.

“Somebody throws a firecracker, screams ‘shots fired’ after it goes off, and starts a stampede,” said Boyd.

Officials said they were prepared to handle crowds that were similar to historical norms, but the borough this year had simply become flooded with teens from across the region, many of whom had nowhere to run after dashing off the boardwalk since they had been dropped off in town.

“I had every police officer – everyone who works for me – here at one time, probably for the first time in 20 years,” said Boyd.

Had an active shooter actually been identified, the Ocean County SWAT Team was already present with weapons that would have likely dispatched the threat.

Immediately after the incident, Vaz, Boyd and Borough Administrator Christopher Vaz – all of whom were at the scene – decided to implement an emergency curfew for the remainder of the weekend, which kept the situation from repeating itself.

“That 10 o’clock curfew changed the whole [thing],” Anthony Vaz said. “It definitely helped.”

Shore Problems

The incident in Seaside Heights was the least violent of three high-profile incidents, with the two others having played out in Wildwood and Ocean City. Wildwood officials declared a state of emergency due to “civil unrest,” and the Ocean City incident resulted in a stabbing that culminated in charges being filed against a juvenile this week.

Seaside Heights officials said the state’s criminal justice reform laws, largely intended to keep inner city teens from becoming entangled in the court system, has handcuffed police officers, who could face criminal charges themselves if they were to detain or engage with juveniles in some circumstances. Shore area mayors are planning a significant lobbying effort to convince the state legislature to course-correct on the reforms, which they say are to blame – along with irresponsible parents – for the chaotic scenes.

“The shore communities from north to south are pressing to change the rules,” said Vaz, with the leaders of beach communities planning meetings with state organizations and officials. “The North Jersey legislators feel different than Shore legislators.”

The recalling of the boardwalk incident came as part of a discussion that began with questions surrounding the borough’s short-term rental ordinance. Through June 30, no one under the age of 21 may rent a property in Seaside Heights, or stay at a motel, unless someone older than 21 who acts as a responsible party is with them.

Christopher Vaz, the borough administrator, said more than 30 rental properties will be receiving court summonses for violating the short-term rental ordinance. One resident, however, said web-based rental services such as Airbnb have complicated the issue, with some property owners believing the company – not they – would be responsible.

“The owners seem to think [Airbnb] is a property management team, and that’s where the problem lies,” said resident Rich Sasso.

Officials, however, said Airbnb was able to assist property owners who needed to have tenants removed for unruly behavior. Councilman Michael Carbone said one of the rental properties he owned in town experienced issues and the tenants were immediately removed from the premises. Airbnb canceled the reservation, which prevented the renters from re-entering the property under the rental contract that is signed electronically.

“The responsibility that the ordinance creates falls on the property owner,” explained Borough Attorney Jean Cipriani. “Their misapprehensions as to the scope of what Airbnb can do doesn’t change that.”

The borough can – and does – revoke the mercantile licenses of property owners who do not comply with the ordinance or do not control a situation that unexpectedly gets out of hand even after they had complied with the law.

“The hope certainly is, by enforcing the ordinance bit-by-bit, there are more people who will put their own provisions [in place] or call Airbnb or the town,” said Cipriani. “There were also a lot of kids who weren’t even staying here, and that is a whole other issue.”

The majority of problematic rental homes were identified and issued summonses, however the sheer number of juveniles who came to town took an immense amount of manpower to control, limiting resources as cars flowed in and out of town.

“While we were on the corner on the Boulevard and Grant [Avenue] while this was going on, hundreds were leaving and hundreds more were coming in,” said Vaz. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that.”

Lines of cars wrapped around borough streets and traffic jams occurred near the border with Ortley Beach.

Boyd had a very clear message for those who drop juveniles off in town and leave them unsupervised to cause trouble.

“If we pick your kid up, we’re charging the parents,” he said.

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