OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City Police Department hires more seasonal officers each summer than most New Jersey departments have full-time officers on staff.
That number has been growing in recent years, going from around 45 officers in previous years to 60 this summer. Next year, according to police Chief Jay Prettyman, that number is likely to climb higher, with 70 to 75 summer officers on staff from spring until fall.
On Wednesday, Prettyman said the increase has been necessary as the department works to address new issues, provide new services and look after a beach resort that transforms from a sleepy community in the winter to one of the largest cities in the state as summer visitors arrive.
But it is not enough to hire more staff, Prettyman said. The department must be ready to train and supervise the young officers.
Prettyman plans to reorganize his department, including adding a new captain’s position. The department has two now. The third captain will be in charge of hiring and training the seasonal staff and overseeing the continuing training of the full-time officers as well.
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He also wants to create a new position of deputy chief.
“Some of his job is going to take the heat off me, so I can do some planning instead of just constantly reacting to situations,” Prettyman said. He has someone in mind for the post but said he could not yet provide a name.
On Thursday, City Council unanimously approved an ordinance creating the deputy chief position. The language also strips some language out of the existing police ordinance.
“You’re taking out language that’s been in the ordinance since the 1940s,” city attorney Dottie McCrosson told council members at that meeting. That includes details about how many vacation days an officer gets and other rules already covered under the collective bargaining agreement signed with the police union. “We’re taking this opportunity to clean that up.”
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The creation of the position of deputy chief is the more substantive element of the ordinance, according to McCrosson, who said Prettyman has big plans. He was named police chief in February 2019.
“He is considering a fairly broad reorganization of the department,” McCrosson told council members. “But the ordinance change is the first step.”
Members of City Council praised the proposal Thursday. Councilman Tomaso Rotondi said he fully supports the proposal. He said training is vital for officers and said police have to be ready for an explosion in population each year.
“I put trust in the chief because he’s asking for exactly what he needs,” Rotondi said Thursday.
At a previous meeting, Councilman Keith Hartzell said changes in the rules covering how police officers interact with juveniles have caused a lot of additional work for Prettyman and for all officers. The changes include limits on searching or questioning juveniles, with officers facing the possibility of criminal charges if they step over the line.
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But Mayor Jay Gillian said the changes Prettyman has in mind go beyond the issues with young people. He called Prettyman a forward-thinking officer.
“He’s been thinking about this for a long time,” Gillian said.
The Boardwalk and beaches have been busy, and like other communities, Ocean City saw large gatherings of juveniles on summer nights this year. But there are other changes underway, Gillian said.
“Our community is now growing. It’s not just Memorial Day to Labor Day anymore,” he said.
On Wednesday, Prettyman said the community is asking for more services and an increased police presence. He plans to oblige, with additional officers on the beach and Boardwalk, and also downtown and in neighborhoods. He also plans to assign more officers to the marine unit, which uses boats to patrol bays and lagoons.
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“The community is asking for these services. It’s my job to figure out how to give them to them,” Prettyman said.
This summer, an almost-nightly crowd of hundreds of teenagers gathering on the beach near the Boardwalk drew attention from media, elected officials and residents. Similar situations have been reported in numerous other beach resorts.
In Ocean City this summer, officers kept an eye on the crowds and were a visible presence, but mostly left the kids alone. Pushing them off the beach moves them to the Boardwalk, which does not please business owners, and Prettyman said he does not want to push the teenagers out of sight where worse problems could develop.
Besides, he said, for the most part the teens are not really doing any harm.
“It’s been largely peaceful. They’re mostly just hanging out enjoying themselves,” Prettyman said. There are some issues, including incidents of teens drinking, smoking marijuana or getting into fights. The chief said there have been some arrests this summer.
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Some residents report acts of vandalism connected to the crowd. But according to Prettyman, despite the public perception, Ocean City has seen less crime this summer than in other years.
Prettyman met with members of council to discuss his plans at length, and met with community members and advocates as well.
David Breeden, president of the watchdog group Fairness in Taxes, praised the proposal Thursday, saying it would help preserve Ocean City’s image as a safe and welcoming community.
“In essence, what we will be doing is hiring another police department,” he said, adding those officers will require supervision.
Ocean City has 68 sworn, full-time police officers, already a relatively large department in a state where most police departments have fewer than 50 members. Seasonal officers fall into two categories of special law enforcement officers, Class I and Class II. Class I officers do not carry a firearm, but have a radio and a baton. They can issue summonses and make arrests for minor infractions. A Class II officer is issued a pistol and can file charges similar to a full-time officer, but are hired temporarily.
While people often think of summer cops being on duty in July and August, Prettyman said Ocean City has seasonal officers for six or seven months a year. He will soon begin working on hiring and training the officers for summer 2022.
“This is our busiest time of year,” Prettyman said, as many of the seasonal officers return to school, the command staff has to prepare for next year and officers who are not allowed vacation in July and August plan to take time so they don’t lose it at the end of the year.
As Prettyman envisions it, the planned changes to the department will mean better trained full-time officers, better oversight and training for seasonal officers, and a more visible police presence, not only on the Boardwalk but throughout town.
As the situation changes, he said, he will continue to monitor police staffing and organization. If the planned number of summer officers proves to be too much in future years, it can be reduced and the command structure reorganized again.
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"In essence, what we will be doing is hiring another police department."
David Breeden, president of Fairness in Taxes