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The police were out in full force on South Beach Friday afternoon, three days after city officials declared that they wanted to crack down on misbehavior and make spring break “a lot less fun.”
More than a dozen police cars and all-terrain vehicles roamed the beach off Eighth Street with their lights flashing. Portable police towers kept watch over hundreds of sunbathers. A police officer DJ’ed from an old lifeguard tower, playing a Bob Marley song set to a techno beat. Overhead, a police surveillance blimp floated in a cloudless blue sky. Police tents covered the entrances to the beach. A prisoner transport van was parked on the sand.
Spring breakers lying on a mosaic of towels with little space in between took selfies and soaked up the sun. Some drank from red plastic cups and beer cans. Others waded into the calm water. Police officers rode along the water’s edge on all-terrain vehicles, scanning the crowd. The only music came from the lifeguard tower-turned-DJ booth.
“There’s always been a police presence, but now it feels like they have the green light to just hound you,” said Whisly Laurent, 29, who was lounging in the sun with his friends. Laurent, an Orlando resident who has come to Miami Beach every year for the past four years to reunite with his college friends, said police had seized the group’s $150 speaker the day before with little explanation. “They just said we’re not allowed to have speakers on the beach,” Laurent said.
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“I feel like they’re here to regulate the African-American community,” added Laurent’s friend, Jerome Hynes.
Nearby, Lidia Lee, 20, was posing for photos in a red bikini with her friend Bree Rainey.
The young women, who were on spring break from a college in Georgia, said the crowd on the beach was smaller than it had been earlier in the week when the police presence was lighter.
“I feel like the police scared everybody away today,” said Lee. “It’s safer, but it did kill the party.”
Killing the party is exactly what city officials are trying to do.
After residents complained about a particularly wild spring break — pointing to videos of fights and other misbehavior posted on social media — city officials called an emergency meeting on Tuesday and announced a police crackdown. A police squad was mobilized to patrol the beach in helmets and protective gear, seizing alcohol and drugs. Barricades were added to Ocean Drive, and reinforcements were called in from other police departments. In total, the city planned to have 371 officers working this weekend, which is expected to be one of the busiest of the spring break season.
City Manager Jimmy Morales acknowledged at the emergency meeting that the approach “may not be pretty” but said the administration “stands behind our officers to do everything they need to do to take control of the beach.” The idea is to keep spring break visitors from getting too drunk on the beach during the day to prevent problems once they migrate to the South Beach entertainment district after dark.
But local civil liberties groups say they are concerned about the city’s approach.
“An increased militarized police presence will inevitably lead to civil rights violations, and should not be the City’s first response,” Nicole Almeida Sinder, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Greater Miami Chapter, said in an email. “There are ways of making our community safer without wholesale violations of the Constitution, and we urge the City to pursue constructive solutions without turning Miami Beach into a police state.”
Ruban Roberts, president of the NAACP’s Miami-Dade branch, said he did not agree with the city’s “negative approach,” including a marketing campaign urging young people to behave with slogans like “Come on vacation, don’t leave on probation.” He urged Miami Beach officials to come up with “more culturally sensitive” strategies to prevent misbehavior.
“The city really needs to be a more welcoming place to all and needs to really be vigilant about removing the bad actors, but not at the expense of those who come down to spend their dollars and enjoy the beach in a safe and a fun way,” Roberts said. “The thing that’s not spoken about is that a lot of the residents are not familiar with people with different backgrounds and different cultures and they fear large numbers of people, particularly black people, coming to the city. They assume all these people are bad actors and that’s not the case.”
Mayor Dan Gelber said he stood by the city’s new policing approach, which was put into effect on Thursday. He said that neither the ACLU nor the NAACP had contacted him directly to express their concerns.
“I have no idea what they would prefer us to do. We cannot allow our public venues to devolve into open fighting. It’s just that simple,” Gelber said. “If there’s another option, of course we’d avail ourselves of it, but this is obviously a concern. It’s a concern to see people fighting on our beaches.”
Morales also defended the city’s approach, including the marketing campaign.
“The core messaging of the campaign is to remind our visitors of the rules and consequences of breaking them — with the ultimate goal of keeping our tourists and residents safe,” he said in an email. “As a result of several serious incidents, we have had to elevate our level of security to keep everyone safe.”
Some beach-goers said they appreciated the heightened police presence. Yushica Willis, 46, was sunbathing with her teenage children in South Beach on Friday afternoon. The family was on vacation from Atlanta.
“I think it’s great because you know it’s okay to have fun, but you have to have people around just in case it gets out of hand,” she said.
Videos posted on social media demonstrate that at times spring break has gotten out of hand this year. One video, which was widely circulated by residents, shows a brawl on the beach involving dozens of young people. Another shows a young woman knocked unconscious near Ocean Drive. A third, shared by the police department, shows a driver on the MacArthur Causeway serving alcohol to passengers in another vehicle.
Police officers have also been injured. Early Thursday morning, a University of Tennessee football player was arrested after punching a cop in South Beach, according to an arrest affidavit. On Friday evening, a police officer was struck by a motorcyclist. Late Friday night, the motorcyclist was in custody; the officer was at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where police said he was “in pain, being evaluated.”
It’s not just the widely publicized incidents that have led to the perception that spring break is particularly raucous this year. The number of 9-1-1 calls went up to roughly 2,400 over Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, compared to 2,100 over the same period in 2018.
City officials have largely blamed locals for the misbehavior. Last weekend, police arrested 97 people, more than half of whom were from South Florida.
This is not the first time civil liberties groups have raised concerns about how Miami Beach polices visitors, particularly black visitors. The city has been criticized in years past for a heightened police presence and increased crowd-control measures over Memorial Day weekend, which draws primarily young black visitors for the loosely affiliated hip-hop concerts and parties known as Urban Beach Week.
But last year, Miami Beach tried to take a new approach. With guidance from a panel that included African-American community leaders and representatives from the tourism industry, the city sponsored a range of events including a gospel concert, a youth poetry slam and a movie screening designed to give visitors something to do other than party.
Roberts, who represented the NAACP on the panel, suggested that Miami Beach consider a similar approach to spring break and sponsor events for young people next year.
It’s unclear whether taxpayers would be willing to add to already substantial spring break expenses, however. With the extra policing added this weekend, the police department expects to spend roughly $1.5 million on spring break security. Next year, police estimate that the price tag will be $2.7 million.
By nightfall on Friday evening, the beach looked like a crime scene. Flashing police lights from nearly a dozen vehicles illuminated a crowd of spring breakers. The police DJ had stopped playing and the young people had broken out their own speakers and were blasting music.
Further up on the sand, a group of young women suddenly started shouting and shoving each other. Before the fight escalated, a half dozen police officers descended on the group with their flashlights shining on the women and separated them.
By then, most of the visitors had migrated to Ocean Drive. They walked up and down the street, separated from the restaurants by barricades.
Despite the crowds — police estimate the number of spring break visitors is up by a third this year — business owners said that spring break hasn’t been good for business.
Ceci Velasco, the executive director of the Ocean Drive Business Association, said most of the business owners she talked to estimated that sales were down by double digits compared to last year.
“We support the city in their efforts to manage the crowds,” she said in a text message. “We can only work together at this time.”