New Jersey to ramp up homeland security efforts at the Jersey Shore this summer

Vacationers take to the beach at Cape May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Vacationers take to the beach at Cape May. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Law enforcement officials in New Jersey are sending specialized investigators to the Jersey Shore this summer, as thousands of tourists flood the state’s seaside resort towns, a yearly migration officials say poses unique security risks.

Investigators from the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOSHP) will focus on coastal towns that attract mass gatherings.

Since the last summer season, the U.S. has endured such mass attacks as the Las Vegas shooting in October, in which a man fired out of a hotel room window into a crowded outdoor concert below, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds more. Later that month, a man plowed a rented pickup truck into people on a Hudson River bike path in New York City, killing eight.

A press release from NJOSHP said it is working with other police agencies to get ready for any threat. “In coordination with local, county, state, and federal law enforcement, NJOHSP has deployed a security strategy to prepare shore communities of the emerging threat to public venues with limited security and free movement,” the press release said.

The effort is part of NJOSHP’s “Secure the Shore” initiative, a targeted push to raise awareness about security threats and conduct investigations at the Jersey Shore.

NJOSHP officials will focus on Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May Counties. They will make visits to boardwalks and businesses, and also train lifeguards and beach personnel on how to identify suspicious activity and report it to authorities.

Officials are hoping the public gets involved, too. “Secure the Shore” is part of the state’s perennial “See Something, Say Something” campaign, which encourages people to report suspicious activity to authorities.

NJOHSP Director Jared Maples said it was tips from the public that led to the 2016 arrest of Ahmad Khan Rahimi, who planted several pipe bombs along the route of a 5K race in Seaside Park that September. In a statement, Maples said involving the public in law enforcement efforts is “paramount to preventing future attacks.”

Critics of the “see something, say something” approach to crime-fighting argue that civilians are not trained like law enforcement officials, and they can be swayed by their unconscious biases when reporting suspicious behavior to police.

Jess Bonnan-White, a criminal justice professor at Stockton University, said the public has been conditioned by popular culture and the news media to view terrorism suspects a certain way.

“They’re looking at what they’re told they should be watching for,” Bonnan-White said. “The American public is told they should be watching for people who speak different languages, people who may look like terrorists in our movies, in our media. People who may outwardly look like they are Muslim.”

Others claimed that, with the proper education, people could learn how to identify suspicious conduct without singling out the individual. “You do not profile people. You profile behaviors,” said Jeff Schwartz, a retired sergeant of the Woodbury Police Department.

Schwartz, also a professor of law and justice studies at Rowan University, said suspicious behavior includes people who try to enter restricted areas or ask others what kinds of items they were able to smuggle past security at public events.

Schwartz also encouraged people at public events to figure out the location of multiple exits, because crowds often bottleneck at one exit during emergencies.

NJOSHP rolled out the “Secure the Shore” initiative just days before Memorial Day, the official start of the summer shore season, a major part of the state’s substantial tourism industry. According to a study by Oxford Economics, more than 100 million people visited the Garden State in 2017.

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