Miami Beach Police to Take Aggressive Measures for Last Peak Spring Break Weekend

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach Police to Take Aggressive Measures for Last Peak Spring Break Weekend:

New strategy includes making arrests on the beach for alcohol and drugs

Miami Beach Police will take a more aggressive approach to curtail the unruly Spring Break behavior that’s making international news through videos of violent and sometimes criminal behavior that have been widely shared on social media.

At a special City Commission meeting yesterday, Police Chief Dan Oates and Deputy Police Chief Rick Clements laid out plans for the final peak Spring Break weekend including police in protective gear wading into crowds on the beach to enforce alcohol and drug laws. The effort, they said, is to prevent dangerous situations created when an intoxicated crowd leaves the beach and spills out into the Entertainment District. 
Mayor Dan Gelber didn’t relish the idea of sending officers in helmets and other protective gear onto the beach, but said, “At this point we simply just can’t allow thousands of people to drink and get high and then come onto Ocean Drive and have a block party… We’re lucky something worse hasn’t happened.”
“We can’t control the streets if we lose control of the beach during the day," City Manager Jimmy Morales said. "This is going to be challenging work and at times it may not be pretty, but I’ve assured the command staff, I’ve even spoken to our union president, that I and the administration will stand behind our officers to do everything they need to do to retake control of the beach.”
Oates said, “It’s a delicate balance when you enforce and when you don’t. Going into a crowd like this to remove alcohol is probably going to spark confrontation. Over the years we’ve not done that so as to avoid confrontation.”
But, he said, “The dynamics have changed. The demands on us have changed so we’re going to adapt to do what’s being asked of us.” The team of about 25 officers that will be on the beach patrol are “specially trained to do this.” They will move back and forth between the beach and the seawall during a shift. Anyone with alcohol will be given the chance to dispose of it first and, if they do, police will step back out of the crowd, but at a meeting later in the evening with the Police/Citizens Relations Committee, Oates said, “If we’re going to do more enforcement, there’s a percentage of people who will resist enforcement... There’s probably going to be some ugly images when that moment comes."
Oates added "We’ll have body cameras running. It will all be filmed… We don’t want to use force. No use of force in policing today looks good. None."
"We don’t like the image that’s being projected now and we might not like the image that’s going to be projected," Gelber said. "I do worry about it, but, on the other hand, I don’t know that there’s another option. I think at the end of the day there is clarity in our decision. We cannot allow these areas to be ungovernable because it’s a danger to the people there, our residents, our police, our shop owners and so we have to act. I feel like it's reached a tipping point."

Oates also told Commissioners, “We’re probably going to have prisoner transport vans parked on the beach. It sends an appropriate signal under the circumstances about how serious we are.”
The other modifications for the coming weekend are similar to strategies employed during the Memorial Day Weekend including a modified Alpha Bravo staffing model in which all officers will work both weekend nights.
Through this past weekend, there have been 80 more officers on the street compared to last year's Spring Break. The adjusted schedules this coming weekend will take this year’s peak staffing from 220 officers to 301. With an additional 70 officers from outside agencies, total peak staffing this weekend will be 371.
The original budget projections for this year’s Spring Break were $1.1 million. With the additional staffing, the cost is now expected to be $1.5 million. A plan to take the same approach during the three peak weekends next year will cost $2.7 million, if implemented.
Morales and Oates both discussed how the dynamics of the event have changed. “This is no longer about a traditional Spring Break with kids coming down to let their hair down,” Morales said. “It’s more a truly promoted party scene that draws local and non-college kids from around the country to come here and party.”
That said, Morales emphasized, “We’re not talking about a city of out of control. We’re talking about an area we need to retake control of” citing packed hotels with high average daily rates and no issues in the areas outside of the Entertainment District.
In addition to increased enforcement on the beach, barricades will be in place to keep the crowd away from the sidewalk cafés while also facilitating better movement and dispersement.  
Traffic was a big pressure point for residents over the weekend when the police lieutenant on duty reduced the MacArthur Causeway to one lane to more safely operate license plate readers. Unfortunately, there also happened to be a Miami Heat game that day and the result was gridlock. Oates said the LPR location will be on 5th Street going forward to allow two lanes to remain open on the MacArthur. He said traffic is unusually heavy this year even during the day something that may be attributable to Airbnb guests staying on the mainland or other local residents coming onto the Beach.
To keep traffic flowing, parking will be eliminated on both sides of Collins Avenue and two officers will be stationed at every intersection from 6th to 16th Streets on Collins and Washington Avenues. Four officers will be stationed at the intersections of 5th and Collins and 5th and Washington from 5 pm to 5 am. The Flamingo Park neighborhood will also be blocked off to non-residents to prevent spillover from the Entertainment District and there will be four additional officers deployed in the South of Fifth neighborhood.
Commissioner Mark Samuelian, addressing frustrated residents, said, “I want to say to the public, public safety is job one for local government. We hear you loud and clear.”  
To Oates and Clements, he said, “You will have my full support on your recommendations to address this… I think addressing this proactively, acknowledging the image isn’t always going to be pretty, is the right thing to do.”
Commissioner Michael Góngora who has been critical of Oates said, “I think like everybody else on Miami Beach I’m upset about, really, the sense of lawlessness that’s kind of coupled with crippling traffic during this period that’s been getting worse. We know it’s getting worse from what we’ve seen in previous years… It’s beginning to sound like a broken record. We knew this was going to be an out of control situation and yet every year we’re not prepared. We’re having emergency meetings. We’re shifting the plan mid-stream.”

“The lawlessness has to stop and the message has to get out that Miami Beach is a place of zero tolerance,” Góngora said. “We really have to start strict enforcement.”
While the men and women of the police department “appear to be doing their best,” he said, “I’m not satisfied that the plan was in place.”
“Change has to start at the top,” Góngora said. “I would like to discuss… making a change and giving the Manager direction to not renew the Police Chief’s contract” which is up in June.
Morales responded that his plan is to speak with each Commissioner “in the coming weeks” to get their input. He said he didn’t think it was fair to Oates to have a public conversation on an item that wasn’t on the agenda and that he wasn’t prepared to address. “Obviously I hear you and I hear the community and I’ll come back with a recommendation, but this morning I don’t think is a hearing on the Chief,” Morales said. “But I hear your message well and will duly take it into consideration as I bring it forward in the coming weeks.
Gelber agreed, saying “Frankly, I don’t know that it would be helpful right now to be doing that. We’re in the middle of trying to figure out how to address the situation and I don’t know that this is the optimal time to have that discussion or the most constructive time, so I appreciate that."
Góngora responded, “I agree and I don’t want to turn this into a negative conversation but we have to have the conversation... I think it’s time to make a change or this is like Groundhog Day. We’re going to be here next year with the same problems and implementing the same plans” with an “upset public.” He said he would request the item be placed on the April Commission agenda for further discussion and at “every meeting that transpires between now and June to ensure we take back our city and keep it safe.”
Commissioner John Alemán said, “This is not a kind of tourism that I think we need.” Referencing Fort Lauderdale’s efforts to rid itself of raucous Spring Breaks, she added, “I think the conversation might have been more difficult for Fort Lauderdale back in the day because their economy was very dependent on Spring Break. I think we’re much more resilient than that. I think we can do without this and we will bounce back because we have a very healthy arts and culture offering for the community, so I think we need to eliminate this Spring Break phenomenon as quickly as possible.”
“I think what we need to do,” she said, “we need to make it a lot less fun to be here, unfortunately, for that type of tourism.”
“I think it’s bad for our brand,” Alemán said expressing concern that the images of Miami Beach this week are “going to interfere with our convention business” because organizations “need to associate with brands that reflect well and are in concert with theirs.”
“I appreciate the changes you’re presenting for the coming week,” Commissioner Micky Steinberg told Oates and Clements, “but I honestly can’t believe I’m here again discussing this. I’m prepared to make the hard decisions. These weekends are not fair for our residents, for our visitors, for our businesses, for our police officers who are on the street. They haven’t slept. They’ve been on Alpha Bravo for many weeks. Beach High didn’t have their officer because of the demands of Spring Break so we’re now losing the quality of life for our residents and the schools that we fight so hard to keep… We knew this was going to be a high impact weekend so I don’t like excuses.”
“Staffing and officer fatigue” was one of the challenges cited by Oates in his presentation. “It’s Memorial Day, weekend after weekend,” he said. They’re working “tough, long hours, 13 to 14 hour days… It’s inspiring to see the work they do.” He noted three officers were injured over the weekend dealing in Spring Break incidents.
At the evening meeting, Oates said “Criticism of our cops has been terribly unfair. Our cops have worked their butts off. They’ve done a lot of good things and prevented a lot of things. They’re exhausted. We keep asking them to do more.”
After the Commission meeting, Miami Beach FOP president Kevin Millan acknowledged the fatigue and said he was concerned about the new staffing policy. “The officers are tired already. Many of them have come into work expecting to work a 10- to 13-hour shift and wind up staying 15 to 18 hours, so they’re exhausted.”
“They expect to get off at 12, 1 am and then they have you stay for another 2 to 3 hours and that happened just about every night. Now they’re exhausted and have to turn around in a few days with very little rest and have to do it all over again,” he said.
When asked if that concerned him, he said, “Absolutely, because a tired officer makes mistakes which could get them hurt.”
Regarding the more aggressive policing on the beach, Millan said, “Walking into a crowd is a very dicey, very unsafe practice. The chances of getting hurt increase which doesn’t make us happy.”
For the newer officers, he said, this will be a big change. “We’re talking about doing a different brand or a different level of policing that we haven’t done here in a very long time and certainly with the newer officers we’ve hired over the last 4 or 5 years [under Oates] they have not done that kind of police work.”
As for the Chief, he said, “The typical line officer does not feel supported by the Chief. He does not feel the Chief has their back.”
Asked about Góngora’s call for non-renewal of the Chief’s contract, Millan said, “I think that process is going to play out with the Commission and the Manager and I have all the faith in the world that they’re going to do the right thing for the Department and the City.”
Gelber wasn’t surprised by Millan’s comments acknowledging a “division between the union and the Chief.” 
He said, “I have a great deal of respect for the union and what they do for Miami Beach."
“He’s our Chief and we expect him to do the job,” Gelber said of Oates. “I have faith in our Chief and support him and I have faith in our officers and I support them. I want them to know I’m grateful. We ask them to do difficult things and they work very hard and they have our gratitude.”
Throughout the day, the message of support for the officers was loud and clear.
In the morning Commission meeting, Morales said of the aggressive policy, “To the men and women, I’ll say it again. We will have their back in this. We will stand by them. We want them to do what’s necessary, always within the law, but what’s necessary to take back that beach.”
In the evening, Police/Citizens Relations Committee Chair Alex Fernandez, told Oates and Clements, “Dramatic is what we need to see. We need to see dramatic changes… Know that we will stand with the men and women of the Miami Beach Police Department when they enforce the laws… because that’s what we want.”
By the numbers
# of colleges on break
Weekend of March 8-10: 575 colleges
March 15-17: 602 colleges 
This coming weekend, March 22-24: 331 will be on break
# of arrests
2018: 85 arrests (highest arrest categories: narcotics and battery)
2019: 97 arrests (highest arrest categories: narcotics and disorderly conduct)
Nearly half, 57 of those arrested, were local (Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe Counties)
11 identified as college students though there may have been others who didn’t self-identify
10 guns were seized

One of the Spring Break success stories is the new scooter regulations.

Oates said that between Thursday, March 14 through Sunday, March 17, there were 97 violations issued. Renters were warned in advance that they would lose their $300 deposit and have their scooters shut off if they violated the traffic laws or were found to be engaging in unsafe activity such as weaving in and out traffic. 
“The message got out,” Oates said. “We love this new ordinance and we think it’s an important factor in controlling behavior.”
He said there was some difficulty on Friday night reaching two of the companies to notify them of violations but that problem was quickly corrected.

Photo courtesy Miami Beach Police Department

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