MARGATE — City officials say they have a plan to prevent a repeat of the melee on the Decatur Avenue beach around 2 p.m. the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and teens hanging out at "Club Wa."
Thirteen young adults and juveniles were arrested over the weekend after two fights broke out in a crowd of about 300 people on the beach near Lucy the Elephant and as youngsters gathered in large numbers at the Wawa on Washington across from Old City Hall, which they dubbed 'Club Wa.'
Police on the day shift arrested six adults and seven juveniles, mostly visitors to the Jersey Shore, on charges of disorderly conduct, simple assault, resisting arrest, obstruction of justice, drug offenses and driving while intoxicated-related offenses. Ten of those arrested were from Pennsylvania, and three were from New Jersey. Police were outnumbered and had to call for backup from Longport and Ventnor police.
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Two Margate officers were injured when one sustained a head wound after being hit with a plastic bottle, and the other suffered a leg wound during the course of the arrests. The injuries were minor.
Later in the day, officers on the night shift charged several youngsters at Wawa with minor drug offenses and disorderly conduct. They were released on their own recognizance pending court dates.
Police Chief David Wolfson told the Board of Commissioners Thursday, July 1 that the Margate City Police Department received 382 calls for service between 4 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Monday, but said the two incidents were not related and involved different groups of young people.
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“They were two separate incidents. They had nothing to do with each other, but it got convoluted by the media,” Wolfson said.
News of the beach fight hit local and national media outlets when a video posted on Instagram went viral.
The city already had six officers on duty at the beach anticipating there could be problems as there had been in past years, Wolfson said.
“We’ve been having this problem every year on Memorial Day weekend. It’s basically a one-time deal. We will change our focus in the future. I don’t want to discuss publicly how we will address it, but it will never happen again as long as I am chief of police,” he said.
The group on the beach was teenagers celebrating senior week who are under the legal drinking age. The Club Wa teens are younger high school students looking just hanging out, he said.
Large gatherings on the beach happen every Memorial Day, but the Wawa issue is ongoing through summer, he said.
Wolfson said Wawa has agreed to help mitigate the problem and will pay for two off-duty police officers to be stationed at the convenience store between 8 p.m. and midnight on weekends “to assist in moving these kids along." Wawa will pay the city on a monthly basis.
“The majority of the kids in question are not Margate residents. Parents are dropping their kids off here because they feel Margate is safe,” Wolfson said.
Wawa has already posted "No Loitering" signs.
Wolfson said the city’s curfew laws require children under 17 to be off the streets by 10 p.m. unless they are working or on an errand for their parents. The Wawa arrests were mostly for disorderly conduct; however, no one was arrested for curfew violations.
“Several municipalities have been challenged on their curfew laws saying it could be unconstitutional,” Wolfson said. “We have not had that issue as of yet.”
Fourteen-year-old Margate resident Harrison Horn, an eighth grade student at the Eugene A. Tighe Middle School, offered commissioners a “good kid's” point of view, stating that if there were positive things for teens to do, or somewhere to hang out, it could lessen the number of teens congregating at Wawa.
“The kids come from towns nearby and Philadelphia. The come to Wawa because there is no supervision, and they are just looking to find someone to get with, you know boys looking for girls, girls looking for boys,” he said, generating a chuckle from officials.
“It won’t solve all the problems, but it would give the local kids something to do, but there will still be a lot of kids going to Wawa,” he said, suggesting police stay at the Wawa until 1 a.m.
Commissioner Maury Blumberg agreed the city might do more to keep youngsters positively engaged.
“If we offered the multipurpose room and the Pavilion as an alternative for these kids to go, would we just be relocating the problem? I just feel we have not offered a real solution,” Blumberg said.
“If we are going to be a target for kids to come, maybe we can offer a venue for certain activities,” Commissioner John Amodeo said. “A large majority won’t go, but it could dilute the volume.”
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Resident Steve Woerner of the Margate Concerned Citizens Group said he has been trying to get the city to form a public-private partnership to get a miniature golf course erected somewhere in town, and resident Joan Naiden suggested the unused girls’ softball field on Jerome and Amherst avenue might be a suitable location.
Woerner said the city should do more for the children of summer resident who own property and pay taxes.
“It’s incumbent upon us to give these kids something to do,” Woerner said.
The administration will discuss alternative activities next week, Wolfson said.
“I pledge to you a real proactive plan in this,” Wolfson said.
“You guys in public safety did a great job. I know we’re getting a lot of bad press, but you guy are wonderful. Thank you for all you do,” Mayor Michael Becker said.
All may not be lost on the extra expense of added police protection or providing extra activities, however.
Year to-date-sales of pre-season beach tags are up as much as $12,000 over last year and the city sold $31,000 worth of tags at the Pavilion on Saturday, May 27, according to CFO Lisa McLaughlin.
“That’s a lot of tags at a cost of $7 or $3.50 each,” she said.