Miami Beach

For Beach cops, Memorial Day policing a success so far

At the beginning of the long Memorial Day weekend, Miami Beach’s police chief reminded hundreds of officers at roll call that “the eyes of the world are upon us.”

If so, then the world saw the biggest and busiest party period on the Beach, Urban Beach Week, unfold nearly without a hitch.

Law enforcement calls, through Sunday morning, were along the line of routine, weekend incidents that occur on South Beach all the time — just more of them.

A brawl here. A foot chase there. A drunk, screaming man, choke-holding his girlfriend, wrestled to the ground by officers and stunned with a Taser.

People drinking and lighting up joints on the streets.

“A lot of low-level lawlessness,” said Miami Beach police Lt. Bruce Johnson as he and a squad of bicycle patrol officers darted down Washington Avenue after ticketing a man for his ride’s illegal window tint.

In all, officers won the battle of space. The thousands of extra bodies crammed into the small Entertainment District kept moving along. Traffic on Washington and Collins avenues, diverted into a one-way loop, flowed smoothly. Barricades on the street added more room for pedestrians to walk, leading to less traffic congestion and fewer outbreaks of temper flaring between revelers, police said.

Through Sunday morning, police made 228 arrests, mostly for misdemeanors, down 16 from the same time period the year before, the city said. A DUI checkpoint — where vehicles were pulled over randomly — was gone Saturday night, but a high-tech license-plate reader remained in place.

The weekend through Sunday evening proved to be happily anti-climactic for the hundreds of cops who manned checkpoints, patrolled on bicycles and watched crowds from choppers in the sky and mobile towers on Ocean Drive.

While their methods were derided by critics as heavy-handed, police officials say measures aimed at curtailing traffic and crime largely worked — keeping crowds peaceful and underscoring the massive logistical challenge of keeping residents and tens of thousands of Urban Beach Weekend partygoers safe.

The scrutiny on police is not new. A decade ago, after unruly crowds caused mayhem, residents complained about the lack of police presence. Over the years, civil liberties groups have complained about overly aggressive tactics and racial profiling.

Last Memorial Day weekend, the city came in for massive criticism after video captured a portion of a police shooting in which officers unleashed a hail of bullets in an effort to stop a man speeding off in a car. The man was killed, and four bystanders were wounded.

This year’s approach did not go over smoothly with the American Civil Liberties Union, which in a letter complained to the city that the measures were “unconstitutional, if not racially motivated.” The department also drew heat after the police union complained about arrest quotas, something department brass denied.

“We do not have a quota,” Chief Ray Martinez told the gathered officers. “I don’t care if we have no arrests or 100 arrests. I want to take care of business.”

As the weekend kicked into full gear, and Friday night melted into Saturday morning, then into Sunday morning, the measures appeared to be successful.

Officers from outside Miami Beach — from Opa-locka, Hialeah and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — flocked into the city. Working 12-hour shifts, they began at the Miami Beach Convention Center for a 7 p.m. roll call. They reviewed maps and coordinated radio frequencies.

As with any big security event, the logistics were challenging. Almost 3,000 barricades and 1,000 traffic cones were brought in to create the traffic loop, which had not been attempted since New Year’s Eve 1999.

More than 150 uniformed private guards were hired for the 150 checkpoints, mostly in residential areas.

The first auto pulled over at the DUI checkpoint netted the arrest of a 27-year-old Miami man popped for driving with a suspended license. Then, officers pulled over Melika L. Smith’s Mazda sedan. Jax, a police Labrador, alerted officers that marijuana was present, and officers found a tiny bag “in a compartment under the steering wheel,” his handler said.

Smith, 28, of West Palm Beach, wearing rainbow-colored leopard print tights and fake plastic pink glasses, was charged with possession and taken away in handcuffs.

As the parties rocked on into Sunday morning, calls to police continued to involve minor matters.

On Ocean Drive, which was closed to auto traffic, two portable police surveillance towers equipped with super-zoom cameras monitored a crowd illuminated by floodlights. Mostly, officers watched from the grass and did not intrude on the partygoers.

Police presence “has been good,” said Ed Harris, a Miami-Dade County community relations board leader and head of the city’s volunteer Goodwill Ambassadors, who led almost 100 volunteers on a march down Ocean Drive. “Cutting down on the traffic and people gives people more room to enjoy themselves,” he said.

Partygoer Anthony Grindley, 23, of New York watched the scene unfolded.

“It’s excessive, but it’s cool,” he said. “I feel safer.”

At Eighth Street and Ocean Drive, near the nearly vacant Wet Willie’s bar, a giant federal law enforcement bus idled. Marcela Martinez, 23, of San Francisco, stopped to chat and thank federal agents who stood guard uneventfully.

Until they saw recent television reports, Martinez and her friends did not know of past Memorial Day weekend troubles, or of last year’s police shooting.

“It definitely feels more comforting,” she said. “To see the cops all around feels safer.”