After a rough Spring Break weekend, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber has called a special meeting of the City Commission for Tuesday morning. The notice indicated the meeting was to discuss traffic though Commissioner Michael Góngora has asked that a crime discussion be added as well.
As the first of two peak weekends began on Friday, the City reduced travel lanes eastbound on the Julia Tuttle Causeway from three to two to monitor cars coming onto the Beach using license plate readers. The MacArthur is already at two lanes due to construction. Tempers flared as residents posted photos of lines of traffic and complained of others using bike lanes to move around.
But it’s what many describe as “lawlessness” – videos of fights, including one in which a young woman is knocked unconscious, and photos of police with guns drawn making the rounds on social media – that is causing the most backlash against the City’s policies to deal with the high-impact event.
In his email request to add crime to the agenda, Góngora wrote to Mayoral Chief of Staff Michele Burger, City Manager Jimmy Morales, and City Clerk Rafael Granado, “I have been bombarded with messages about the crime situation this weekend.”
In one photo posted in a couple of Facebook groups resident Christina Farhy shows her toddler eating at a sidewalk café table this past Thursday when police show up. “Last time we eat on Ocean Dr during Spring Break,” she wrote in the post. “…literally 5 cops with guns yelling at the driver 15ft way from us! I snatched the baby up and ran to the back of News Café!”
In an angle from the other side of the street, a video shows police removing a large weapon from a backpack taken from the car. Farhy circled herself in a screen shot from the video grabbing her son and running to the back of the café.
The perception of crime has been heightened since a robbery suspect shot at a Miami Beach police officer near South Pointe Elementary School on March 8 as students were being let out. He was apprehended shortly after. On March 12, a man was attacked with a baseball bat while walking his dog. The man was hospitalized and police are still searching for his attacker.
In the early morning of March 14th, a video from the Sherbrooke Hotel video surveillance cameras shows a man being attacked by a group on 9th Street between Collins and Ocean.
On Friday the 15th, the video of the woman being knocked to the ground went viral followed shortly after by the posting of a photo of another incident where police have guns pointed at a car stopped at 9th and Euclid.
Saturday night, reports and videos surfaced of two large “brawls” and stampedes of Spring Breakers. It is unclear what they are running from.
There are several other gun related incidents reported that are not accompanied by photos or video and have not been confirmed by Miami Beach Police.
As the negative reports overwhelmed social media, residents and several elected officials posted thank you messages to police officers, goodwill ambassadors, and sanitation workers who are in the thick of the activity. Many residents describe an “exhausted” and “overworked” police force that is "stretched too thin".
Sunday was considered a “transition day” from one group of Spring Breakers to the next and officials were hoping for a quieter evening but there was a report of shots fired at 10:00 pm at 15th and Washington. According to the Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness Group, one suspect was taken into custody while another was being sought. MBPD put out a notice on social media to avoid the area due to reports of shots fired. Early this morning, there was a report in the crime group of MBPD officers in pursuit of a man with a gun on Collins Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets along with photos of a heavy police presence in the area.
In an email exchange with RE:MiamiBeach earlier in the day on Sunday, Commissioner Michael Góngora wrote “Residents are frightened and upset by the videos depicting horrible actions throughout the entertainment district of our city, including a video of a woman getting knocked out by a punch to the face. This is unacceptable.”
Góngora echoed what others have observed anecdotally. “I’m not sure if these are actual college students or if these are residents from other areas of South Florida that are coming to South Beach to be a part of the party atmosphere. I have asked the City Manager and Police Chief to quantify data on the arrests being made to help give a clearer response if the problem is really college students or local day visitors, or both.”
RE:MiamiBeach wrote about a difficult Spring Break last year and a Commission meeting after in which restrictions were considered.
“My perception is that the situation is not getting better,” Góngora said. “Looking back at your story of last year’s Spring Break commission meeting shows that the City of Miami Beach is not making progress in improving residential quality of life during this problematic month. I believe we can do better.”
“I believe we need more aggressive policing and consider enclosing the problem where it can be better controlled. We need to take action immediately when there is criminal behavior taking place. I expect to hear some suggestions from our paid administrators on Tuesday,” he said.
In addition to the 8:00 am Commission meeting, Góngora chairs the Neighborhood and Community Affairs Committee which has a regularly scheduled meeting at 2:00 pm on Tuesday at which crime is a standing item on the agenda. Later, at 6:00 pm, the Police/Citizens Relations Committee will hold its regular meeting at 6:00 pm at Police Headquarters, 1100 Washington Avenue. That meeting is also open to the public. Góngora has encouraged residents to come to any of the three meetings that day to express their concerns. Note you can also send comments to the Mayor and Commissioners via email.
“I am hopeful that the Mayor will see the gravity of the situation and allow for a conversation with the full commission on Tuesday morning,” Góngora said. “Regardless, at Neighborhoods Committee I will raise the issue. Residents are very upset and we can’t tell them that the best solution we can come up with is to notify arrestee’s universities.” He was referring to an earlier policy, since reversed, to notify schools when a student was arrested here on Spring Break.
“I believe many of these people we see depicted in videos are not college students at all and most likely spending little to no money in our business establishments either,” he said. “Maybe one solution is charging to be part of the entertainment district and programming events to keep them more enclosed and safe. I expect that the Administration will take the lead on these suggestions and provide the volunteer elected officials with the roadmap we need. We have voted in favor of every funding request made by the police department so now they need to take actions to keep our city safe.”
“Long term we need to acknowledge that what we have been doing is not working,” Góngora said. “It is time for new energy and new ideas on policing our city. Clearly, South Beach remains a very popular destination for young people during Spring Break and Memorial Day weekends and we need to look to Ft. Lauderdale, Panama City and other destinations that took strong action to control their cities and allow better quality of life for the residents. I am ready to see some changes.”
State Representative Michael Grieco, a South of Fifth resident and former City Commissioner, has also been vocal about the issues on social media. In an interview with RE:MiamiBeach, he said. “From my perspective, I’m not seeing any lessons learned from previous years of mistakes. It seems like every year from City Hall to the [Police] Chief, they cross their fingers, and just hope nothing monumentally bad happens. And, unfortunately, the aggregate violence and the optics regarding behavior will have lingering impacts on our tourism. It already has.”
“I’m worried about the safety of our guests. I’m worried about the way our city is perceived and I’m obviously worried about the safety of our residents and the quality of life of our residents,” Grieco said. “The traffic management is nonexistent. And it’s driving the residents bananas as you can see by what’s going on social media... When it comes to our brand we are doing irreversible damage and nobody seems to have the guts to do anything about it.”
“You need to be out front. You need to be tough,” Grieco said. “You need to stop worrying about playing nice with everybody and realize that we need to take back our streets, take back our beaches to where the residents and the law-abiding guests are prioritized.”
When asked how, he said, “Step one is make our rank and file police officers comfortable enough to do more than what they’re doing right now which is essentially responding to calls for service.”
Officers need to spread out more, he said. “There’s not one corner I should be able to stand on for fifteen minutes and not see a cop… There’s just no excuse but I’ll go up to Ocean Drive and I’ll see an army of guys… This is not a knock on the rank and file police officers. They are doing what they are told to do but we’re reacting. We’re being like bad nightclub bouncers. A good nightclub bouncer will identify that a problem is starting before it starts. At some point it is unsafe for a police officer to do their job with the size of these crowds and we are not managing the crowds, the size and the area that they take up. It’s not being managed properly to a point where it’s unsafe for police officers to go into those crowds.”
“There needs to be a level of preventative policing that is not currently part of the model whether it be on a random Saturday or a high impact weekend or Spring Break. We are not living in a preventative policing model,” Grieco said.
He also thinks the City needs to “create actual positive programming” for Spring Break like it does for Memorial Day Weekend now. “At least with Memorial Day we’ve finally created programming to where it’s become manageable. The arrests are way, way down, especially the daytime arrests. The crowds have become less unruly and the hotels have seen the improved behavior and the improved financial numbers but for Spring Break I don’t know what they think they’re going to accomplish.”
“Half the kids aren’t in college. It’s an antiquated thought process to send messages out to colleges,” he said referencing the “Come on vacation, don’t leave on probation” marketing campaign.
“These aren’t kids in school. These are people from the southeast United States who came down here for one reason or another.” For every student, Grieco said he’s seen two non-students. “You’re not scaring anybody threatening them that you’re going to reach out to their college.”
“How is it that other cities in Florida have figured out a way to manage the behavior and or eliminate it to the betterment of their tourism, and to the quality of life of their residents?” Grieco asked. “People here are fed up.”
A master’s thesis on Fort Lauderdale’s efforts to crack down on unruly Spring Break behavior from 2013 is once again making the rounds in Miami Beach.
John Deutzman, co-founder of the Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness Facebook Group sent the link on Saturday along with an email to the Mayor and Commissioners. In it he wrote, “Spring Break 2019 has tuned [sic] into an embarrassing disaster for the City and the sooner we admit that ...the quicker we can fix things.”
“I was part of one of the emergency meetings after we had to shut down the City last year (March 17th) and many good ideas which arose from that have failed,” he wrote, referencing the shutdown of the eastbound MacArthur Causeway due to overcapacity. “Although I’m just a citizen, I will take full responsibility for the failure. Trying to scare people away and adding more cops didn’t work.”
“The residents and local business owners have a mutual contempt for spring break,” he wrote. “There are no competing interests like they had in Fort Lauderdale during the controversial shutdown of Spring Break in the mid 80’s” when businesses were concerned about lost revenue.
Deutzman highlighted two initiatives in Fort Lauderdale including “aggressive enforcement of all over capacity issues which included the arrests of 3 managers of the Elbow room, the arrest of the manager of the Fort Lauderdale Surf Hotel and the complete shutdown of the Fort Lauderdale Surf Hotel” and “2,500 Arrests for drinking in public” though he noted, “I’m not sure at the moment we have the capacity or manpower in place for this and our crowd seems more violent this year. Ultimately we haven’t followed through on the threat” to aggressively enforce the rules.
Not everyone is seeing the problems this year. Ron Starkman, President of the South of Fifth Neighborhood Association, responded to a request for his observations via email. “I'm not seeing any issues South of Fifth. I don't go out after Midnight and avoid Ocean Drive above 7th. I saw the footage on the news regarding the brawls, but thus far South of Fifth has been busier than usual, but I don't see the rowdy crowd in our neighborhood. Business [sic] have been busy with decent crowds. Haven't heard any complaints from other residents. Neighborhood beaches and parks largely a family crowd.”
The Entertainment District runs from 5th to 15th Streets on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue and is where the bulk of activity usually takes place. It abuts the South of Fifth neighborhood to the north.
To the west is the Flamingo Park neighborhood. Scott Needelman, President of the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association, had a very different take. “What's happening on the Beach this weekend is not a spring break problem. Nor will it be a Memorial Day problem in a couple of months. What's happening now is a year round problem,” he wrote in an email. “The only difference is that there are a lot more people in town now than on a non-holiday or event weekend. This type of activity happens every weekend.”
“Unfortunately, Miami Beach is thought of as a place where anything goes. Until the City truly has a zero tolerance policy on open containers, smoking weed in the street, cars blasting music and ignoring traffic signals, etc, and enforces it year round, the problem will get worse,” Needelman said.
Needelman said instead of marketing campaigns, the City would be better off spending its money "bringing in police from other jurisdictions to enforce the law instead of wasting it on a bogus campaign they never intended to implement.”
We reached out to the City Administration but did not receive a response to our request for comment. Mike Palma, President of the Ocean Drive Association, said he wanted to speak with his Board on Monday before commenting.
Photo at top courtesy Logan Fazio
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