In Miami Beach, where revelers flock from around the globe to guzzle Grey Goose and sip cosmopolitans — often to excess — police officers nabbed 1,299 suspected intoxicated drivers in 2009.
By last year, that number had plunged to 492.
And if this year’s pace continues, Miami Beach cops will cuff still fewer: They made just 221 driving-under-the-influence arrests in the first half of this year, newly released Miami-Dade court statistics show.
It is a startling trend in a city fueled by booze and a thriving night-life industry, one that has supplied Web surfers with an endless parade of bleary-eyed entertainers and pro athletes nailed for driving through South Beach while drunk or high.
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“Obviously, it’s very frustrating for MADD. It’s so sad,” said Janet Mondshein, executive director of Miami’s chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the organization that did more than anyone to make drunken driving unacceptable. “If this continues, more people will die. They might not necessarily die in Miami Beach, but that’s where the drinking starts, and then they travel elsewhere.”
Has the message finally sunk in that drinking and driving is a deadly combination? Hardly. The number of traffic wrecks in Miami-Dade linked to drinking has remained level.
So why the big reduction in arrests?
The city’s police union blames a lack of officer training and resources, while the department acknowledges that under a reorganization of patrol zones started in late 2011, officers sometimes must forgo DUI stops to target other crime trends plaguing the city.
“It’s not that we’re not focusing on DUIs, but this is a busy, happening community, and we have a lot of issues,” said Chief Ray Martinez. “DUI enforcement and traffic enforcement is one of many.”
Nonetheless, the decline in DUI enforcement is troubling to critics who don’t believe fewer people are driving while drunk or high on drugs.
And gruesome, high-profile cases are still making headlines — this past week, a Key Biscayne pop musician was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the DUI hit-and-run that killed a cyclist on the Rickenbacker Causeway.
Earlier this year, a drunken bartender and self-described “party princess” Karlie Tomica plowed into a chef walking across Collins Avenue in a case that drew national headlines.
Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, while praising the department’s improved patrol visibility, said the drop in DUI arrests is “concerning.”
“I have a hard time believing less people are drinking and driving,” Wolfson said.
The diminished DUI enforcement comes as Miami Beach draws more crowds than ever.
In the past fiscal year, resort-tax revenue was measured at $51 million, a nearly 37 percent increase from four years ago. And clubs and bars, which pay tens of thousands each year to employ off-duty Miami Beach officers to provide security, are an integral part of the city’s nightlife.
The plummeting Beach numbers are, in fact, part of an overall decline in DUI arrests county- and statewide. Back in 2009, police agencies around Miami-Dade busted 6,321 suspected intoxicated drivers — but this year are on pace to make 23 percent fewer busts.
In Miami, officers in 2012 hauled off to jail over 1,000 suspected drunken drivers. In the first half of this year — just 327. Up north in Miami Gardens, where officers nabbed 94 inebriated drivers in 2010, cops in the first half of this year cuffed just 16.
In Doral, a police department that focuses heavily on traffic enforcement, the drop has been drastic. In 2010, cops busted 191 drunken drivers. Halfway through this year? Just 34.
Doral Lt. Gary King, who heads traffic enforcement, claims no policies have changed.
“We’re hoping the decrease is because of awareness,” King said. “Hopefully word is getting out that the consequences are very, very severe.”
To be sure, DUI arrests have remained stable with some large police agencies.
Arrests from the Florida Highway Patrol in Miami-Dade have increased in recent years. Troopers are slated to finish this year with just under 500 arrests, up from 347 in 2009.
The Miami-Dade Police Department, the largest county law-enforcement agency, is on pace to arrest nearly 1,800 suspected drunken drivers, which would surpass any of its totals in recent years.
Back in Miami Beach, the police department says there is no one overriding reason for the drop. Officials claim public awareness campaigns have worked at stopping motorists from getting behind the wheel while drunk or high.
Increased checkpoints and shuttle services have helped deter DUIs in Miami Beach, according to Chief Martinez.
The police union has a different view, claiming that officers are discouraged by a court program started in 2011 called Back on Track, which allows certain first-time DUI offenders to pay fines, complete community service and take classes to have their DUI charge busted down to reckless driving.
“It’s a lot of paperwork in order to even get it into the court system, and then nothing really happens,” said Alex Bello, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “The officers don’t feel like they’re really making a dent in the whole DUI situation.”
But Miami-Dade prosecutors say the “Back on Track” program, which has strict criteria and generates hundreds of dollars in fines per case, was created because witnesses — usually cops — failed to appear for trial, allowing far too many drunken drivers to escape with no penalty.
In all, over 5,000 DUI arrestees have enrolled in the program since 2011, the state attorney’s office says.
“The program also allows for a police department to redirect their officer resources so that police officers are available for more patrol work by spending less time in court,” said state attorney spokesman Ed Griffith.
Miami Beach has long been one the most active agencies in busting drunk and high drivers.
The department was the worst offender in a 1997 Miami Herald series, “Collars for Dollars,” that documented rampant overtime abuse on DUI cases in the county’s three largest police departments. The series led to reforms in how police overtime is doled out.
The department’s court overtime budget has remained static over the past three years, despite the drop in DUI arrests.
Lawyers chalk up the drop in arrests to the retirement or reassignment of several key Beach police officers who were particularly prolific in DUI arrests. One officer, Eric Dominguez, was stripped of his driving duties for nine months after he was caught speeding in South Beach early last year.
“Miami Beach used to be one of my best sources of business,” said Miami lawyer Bobby Reiff, who specializes in DUIs.
The union also has attacked the administration for a lack of training for newer patrol officers.
For example, in 2009, the city employed eight “Drug Recognition Experts” — officers who are trained to identify drivers under the influence of narcotics . Today, there are three full-time “DRE” officers, plus two reserve officers who work sporadically, usually called in just for checkpoints.
But the fewer DUI arrests in Miami Beach mostly come from a change in police philosophy.
The ‘Sector Plan’
Instituted in late 2011, the community “sector plan” divided the city into eight zones. The idea: forge a closer relationship with neighborhoods by placing more officers on the street, getting them out of their cars and patrolling specific areas hard hit by crimes.
The sector plan has come under fire from Miami Beach’s police union. Bello says the plan gives officers less flexibility to target drunken drivers.
“Before, a lot of officers in between calls could work running radar down south, doing traffic enforcement in the peak hours when the clubs are letting out, when you’d see a lot of accidents and major incidents,” he said.
Miami Beach brass admits that officers who made DUI arrests their “niche” have in some cases been redirected. And rightfully so, said Miami Beach Deputy Chief Mark Overton.
“That’s not a good use of police resources, to have a guy sitting on an establishment that sells alcohol and waiting for people to come out. I don’t know if that was happening before, but that’s not what we’re focusing on,” Overton said.
“We don’t want our guys sandbagging bars.”