OCEAN CITY — Sgt. David Hall was patrolling the city’s northern end at about midnight on a Friday when he received a call on his radio that a nearby officer was chasing a suspect down an alleyway.
When Hall arrived at the scene, the officer already had the teenage suspect pinned to the ground and handcuffed. He was in a full baseball uniform, with smudged eye black still on his face from the game his Pennsylvania high school team played earlier that day.
The teen — and about two dozen of his friends who rented a home around the corner — received a citation for underage drinking.
Ocean City writes more than 600 citations for unlawful possession of alcohol each year, and the majority are for underage drinking during the summer. The rest usually involve open-container violations.
Hall and his fellow officers write these citations as part of the Ocean City Police Department’s Noise and Alcohol Unit, one of several similar units that departments up and down the coast use to focus solely on quality-of-life problems that come with the seasonal arrival of visitors.
In shore towns, these issues begin in June and peak at the end of June and beginning of July, when most high schools have let out and friends from all over New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York rent homes to party together at the beach.
“Long Island, Staten Island, North Jersey, suburbs of Philly, you name it,” Wildwood police Sgt. Joseph Murphy said. “They come from far and wide to come down.”
“People spend so much money to stay in this town,” said Hall, who heads Ocean City’s unit.
Ocean City, without bars or liquor licenses of any kind, mainly deals with underage drinking at rental homes and on its Boardwalk.
“Not a lot of kids that are over 21 frequent Ocean City,” police Chief Chad Callahan said. “They go to Sea Isle and places that have bars, which we don’t.”
Many of the teens do not cause problems, and the communities welcome the guests.
But the records show that there are enough crimes committed every year by out-of-town recent high school graduates that towns have steadily cracked down on the issue over the past 20 years.
“It’s not fair to (residents and other visitors) to have them messing with their quality of life during the time of year that you should be enjoying Ocean City,” Callahan said.
Before going out on patrol recently, Hall opened an exterior storage closet filled with cases of beer, kegs, keg taps and fireworks that his officers had confiscated in the first few weeks of the summer. They keep it all on hand as evidence until each case is cleared.
“This is nothing,” he said, pointing out that in the past the closet has been packed to capacity before the end of summer’s first month.
Hall then jumped in his patrol SUV and drove to a few of the houses the department had already received complaints about that night.
Many of the houses, Hall explained, are consistently problems. The landlords live outside the area, jack up the rates for groups under 25 years old, and then turn a blind eye to any problems the renters cause.
He said the city has gone after more of these landlords in recent years, keeping extensive files on repeated issues, taking photographs and compiling detailed logs. Hall said he can charge a landlord criminally for maintaining a nuisance, but reserves that for only the most negligent cases.
When his vehicle slowly passed a house that police had already responded to earlier in the night, Hall pointed out that every blind in the house was now closed. He said that in that case, neighbors were keeping a vigilant eye and ear on the house and would be quick to call police if the party ramped up again.
Hall turned and started driving through the Gardens neighborhood. As he spoke, five apparently young men walked across the street, directly in front of his vehicle, carrying 30-pack cases of beer and 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor.
Hall stopped in the middle of the street and called out to the men as they started walking across a front lawn to a house, saying, “Hey! You guys 21?”
They stopped and turned. At first they said they didn’t have identification, but then they eventually said they were not of legal drinking age.
Hall called for backup, and three other officers arrived shortly after to cite the men.
“That’s why you patrol,” Hall said, then got back in the SUV and started driving again.
A few minutes later, he received the call for the foot chase and responded. The officer who arrested the teen said it began when other officers noticed him and a group of other young men walking down the street carrying flags and lawn ornaments.
When the officers questioned them, they ran, and the officers were able to catch only the one.
However, he led them back to the house where he was staying. His friends had rented two small homes side by side on First Street, and while those in one of them had already let the police in, teens in the other shut off all the lights and locked the doors.
“We can hear them whispering inside but they won’t let us in,” one officer told Hall as he arrived.
They eventually did open the door when the officers knocked again and said they had apprehended their friend. When they entered, a stream of recent high school graduates poured down the stairs, one after one with sullen looks on their faces.
Those who were under 21 and over 18 received citations. Those under 18 years old had their parents called, and they would have to perform community service. At least one teen was so intoxicated an ambulance was called as a precaution.
Hall said he doesn’t delight in issuing teenagers tickets, but he again said that if they create disturbances for the year-round residents and other renters nearby, police have to uphold the law.
“I call some of these parents, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, so?’” he said. “They think it’s like a rite of passage.”
By the time the officers finished writing tickets and taking information, it was past 2 a.m. Hall left slightly beforehand, but first noticed an elderly woman talking to two slightly intoxicated teens over 18 who were issued citations and told to walk back to the other home they were staying in.
Hall asked what was going on, and the woman explained that she had just arrived in town but she could not carry her heavy bags into her house. Hall told the two young men to go on their way, and he then carried her bags for her.
“Community policing,” he said, with a smile.
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