A new crackdown on noise complaints and other quality of life issues in Miami Beach is raising concerns for local civil rights leaders ahead of Memorial Day weekend, a holiday with a music festival that attracts thousands of black visitors and is typically marked by a heavy police presence.
The NAACP objects to a new enforcement strategy in Miami Beach that includes teams of police officers tasked with pulling over cars playing loud music and arresting drivers who refuse to turn down the volume, in addition to addressing other noise and traffic issues. Although a Miami-Dade County ordinance prohibiting cars from playing "unreasonably loud" music was already on the books, city police rarely arrest violators. The NAACP is questioning the timing of the crackdown, which was announced in late April.
In a letter to city officials, the NAACP said the new initiative could lead to more arrests during Memorial Day weekend and "supports the belief that the City of Miami Beach is hostile and unwelcoming to African-American visitors."
Memorial Day weekend has long sparked tensions in Miami Beach, where the holiday draws primarily young black visitors for the loosely affiliated hip-hop concerts and parties known as Urban Beach Week. The city has been criticized by civil liberties groups in years past for a heightened police presence and increased crowd-control measures.
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"As you may be aware, there is already a strong feeling in Miami-Dade's African-American community that Black visitors to Miami Beach are held to a tougher standard and treated more harshly than others," Miami-Dade branch president Ruban Roberts wrote in the letter, which was sent to Miami Beach commissioners and the city manager on Tuesday.
The NAACP urged the city to adopt its own noise ordinance allowing police to ticket violators after two warnings, rather than arresting them after one. The group also asked police to use "measurable standards" to determine whether the noise is excessive and apply the same standards to clubs, in addition to taking an "explanatory approach" when pulling drivers over for noise violations.
When it comes to the enforcement of ordinances in which police officers have a lot of discretion, like the county noise ordinance, African Americans are "impacted by that more than other groups of people," Roberts told the Miami Herald.
Miami Beach police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez said the new enforcement initiative, which includes cracking down on noise violations and reckless scooter driving, came after problems during spring break and would continue after Memorial Day weekend. Miami Beach saw a particularly rowdy spring break this year, with crowd control issues one Saturday night prompting police to temporarily close the MacArthur Causeway to incoming traffic.
The police department is "always appreciative of concerns expressed by the NAACP leadership," Rodriguez said in an email, noting that Chief Dan Oates and other police leaders would meet with the civil rights group on Thursday to discuss plans for Memorial Day weekend, including the concerns raised in the letter.
Rodriguez said police would carefully document any noise violations, including with body cameras, which nearly all officers have. The Miami Beach Police Department "is a nationally accredited agency with strong policies against bias-based policing," he said. "Our officers are well trained on these issues and embrace notions of fundamental fairness. There will be no targeting of any particular group as this ordinance is enforced."
As of Sunday evening, Miami Beach police had issued warnings to 51 people for violating the county noise ordinance, but hadn't arrested anyone, Rodriguez said.
A state law that enabled police to give drivers a ticket for loud music was struck down in 2012 after the Florida Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, leaving the county ordinance as the only legal tool for enforcing car noise complaints. Miami Beach is not preempted from passing its own noise ordinance, however, according to the city attorney's office.
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber didn't rule out a city ordinance and said he would take the NAACP's concerns into consideration. "We appreciate [the letter] and we're going to obviously listen and be mindful of it, but at the end of the day we can't abdicate our responsibility to keep our streets orderly," he said. "That really can't be a negotiable concept."
Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who has been working with the NAACP to plan the city's Memorial Day activities, said he would be open to an ordinance that allows police to ticket violators. "I would definitely support something that's going to result in fewer arrests and not harm people's employment opportunities over something like loud music," he said.
Memorial Day weekend has often stirred controversy in Miami Beach, including tensions between South Beach residents and visitors. Last year, a deadly shooting following a dispute over a parking spot scarred an otherwise peaceful weekend.
In an effort to reshape the holiday weekend, the city formed a panel with black community leaders and representatives from the tourism industry.
"I think we've made some positive headway but we are far from where we need to be in treating our guests during Memorial Day weekend with the enthusiasm and respect that we welcome visitors on other weekends such as Art Basel," said Arriola, who chairs the panel.
Tameka Hobbs, a historian and one of the leaders of the nonprofit South Florida People of Color, said Miami Beach needs to be mindful of how it treats African-American visitors.
"There's a very long history of the criminalization of black leisure," she said, noting that segregation-era Jim Crow laws applied to beaches. "I don't think there's a problem with regulating behavior, but it cannot be enacted in such a way that specific groups are targeted. That's my fear — that instead of targeting the behavior, there's a targeting of a specific group of people, which is a continuation of a very painful history."
The noise crackdown isn't the only issue the NAACP is worried about in Miami Beach. Roberts said the group is also concerned about a proposed city ordinance that would ban motorized scooter rentals during the month of March and over Memorial Day weekend because it appears to target dates when the city typically has a large number of black visitors.
Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán, who sponsored the legislation, said the proposed ordinance applies to those two periods because they are typically the most crowded. She had initially proposed a rental ban during the month of April as well, but narrowed the ordinance after other commissioners raised concerns about the impact a longer ban would have on scooter rental businesses.
"We want to protect everyone including our visitors," she said. "I find that really troublesome that someone would indicate that a simple attempt to improve public safety is somehow targeting a particular group. That is not the case."