Was Long Branch, NJ, pop-up party a riot?
Following a pop-up party that drew thousands to Long Branch this weekend, state and local officials are scrambling to find solutions to combating rowdy, and potentially dangerous, crowds as the Memorial Day weekend approaches.
Long Branch imposed a curfew after as many as 5,000 young people mobbed the area around Pier Village. Police used a flash-bang and smoke grenades to disperse the crowd. Fifteen people were arrested, mostly for fighting.
State Sen. Robert Singer, R-Ocean, has called on the state to create a task force to combat what he calls "orchestrated criminal acts." The goal of the task force, Singer says, would be to identify and prosecute the organizers of such pop-up parties, and hopefully dissuade more of them.
Gov. Phil Murphy responded on Monday to questions by New Jersey 101.5, saying that he spoke to officials over the weekend about Long Branch.
Last year, following a similar pop-up party in Long Branch, Singer and Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, sponsored a bill that would have broadened the definition of a "riot" to include such the kinds of rowdy mass gatherings that have hit several shore towns.
The bill (S-3992) would have made it easier for law enforcement to make arrests and break up large gatherings before they got out of hand. The bill was referred to committee but no action was taken.
"Our shore economy is crucial to the state, and it won't take many episodes like the random intimidation and rowdy behavior displayed in Long Branch to collapse one of New Jersey’s most valuable sectors," Singer said at the time, "Riots and rampant vandalism will drive visitors away and devastate the summer season."
Of the proposed changes, Pennacchio says, "Doing nothing is not an option. The consequences of inaction are too severe."
Under current law, classifying these pop-up parties as a "riot" would be difficult, especially if the gatherings are generally peaceful.
In the latest incident in Long Branch, arrests were made generally for fighting, not simply for being part of a large gathering.
Local officials are likely to start imposing curfews in an attempt to give police a reason to keep large gatherings from forming at night, but that does little to address daytime parties on beaches and boardwalks.
Aside from changing the law, it is unclear what other steps the state could take to intervene.
The State Police have a robust cyber-crimes division that could, in theory, monitor social media for flyers and other messages calling for people to gather at a specific time and place. That would allow towns to deploy police to discourage any rowdy behavior.
Gov. Murphy could deploy members of the New Jersey National Guard to provide added security, but that move is unlikely given the number of shore towns involved and the optics of having an armed military police presence on New Jersey boardwalks.
Special town hall this Thursday
The chaos in Long Branch this year comes as New Jersey begins its first summer after greenlighting the sale of recreational marijuana.
New Jersey 101.5 will broadcast a special town hall at 7 p.m. Thursday to discuss what New Jersey can expect this summer at the shore.
The program, which will be carried on Facebook Live, will include tourism officials, local mayors, law enforcement and travel experts.
Previous reporting from Sergio Bichao was included in this story.