Miami Beach

Miami Beach holds emergency spring break meeting: ‘We need to make it a lot less fun’

A brawl on the beach, a young woman knocked unconscious near Ocean Drive, police officers injured, a driver on the MacArthur Causeway serving alcohol to passengers in another vehicle, and a tourist flying out of the car window and getting run over on her way to the airport.

These are some of the incidents that prompted Miami Beach officials to hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday to address what residents describe as a particularly raucous spring break.

To make matters worse, some of the safety measures police have taken — including narrowing traffic on the Julia Tuttle Causeway to two lanes last weekend in order to deploy license plate readers — have exacerbated traffic congestion in a city already clogged by ongoing construction projects.

Two weeks into spring break, residents say they’re already at their wits’ end. The frustration has spilled onto social media, where videos of many of the incidents have been posted, and the fights have even caught the attention of international tabloids. City commissioners, who received dozens of calls and emails over the weekend, are feeling the heat.

“Who is in charge of this city?” demanded Madelyn Alvarino, a Beach resident who spoke before a packed auditorium at Tuesday’s meeting. “Every year, last year it was the same thing and now this year you’re surprised because it is a mess. We are residents. We pay our taxes. All of you work for us.”

Nancy Liebman, a former commissioner, described what she saw on Ocean Drive last week.

“There’s motorcycles, there’s half-naked and fully naked women running around the streets. The enforcement was not there,” she said. “The problem is somebody’s gotta get tough.”

The Miami Beach Police Department told commissioners that that’s exactly what it plans to do. Starting this weekend, a police squad of roughly 25 officers wearing protective gear will patrol the beach in front of Ocean Drive throughout the day to seize alcohol and drugs. The idea is to keep visitors from getting too drunk and causing problems once the beach party migrates to the South Beach entertainment district after dark.

“This is going to be challenging work and at times it may not be pretty, but I’ve assured senior command staff, I’ve even spoken to our union president, that I, the administration, stands behind our officers to do everything they need to do to take control of the beach,” said City Manager Jimmy Morales.

The police department also plans to use barricades and all-terrain vehicles with sirens to disperse crowds. It will also park prisoner transport vans on the beach to keep the party in check.

“It sends an appropriate signal about how serious we are,” said Police Chief Daniel Oates.

Miami Beach police have also called for reinforcements from other police departments. With more local police scheduled to work and dozens of officers from other departments lending a hand, the city estimates that it will have 371 officers working this weekend, which is expected to be one of the busiest of the spring break season.

The police department had already deployed nearly 100 additional officers this year to deal with spring break crowds as part of a $1.1 million security plan that Oates said he estimates will end up costing closer to $1.5 million with the additional measures proposed Tuesday.

Spring breakers gather on South Beach in March 2015. This year, residents say spring break has been particularly wild. Al Diaz

Mayor Dan Gelber endorsed the plan. “At this point we simply just can’t allow thousands of people to drink and get high and come onto Ocean Drive and then sort of have a block party that creates safety issues,” he said. “I think we’ve sort of been lucky that we haven’t had something worse happen.”

But the plans to beef up the police presence weren’t enough to placate some elected officials. Commissioner Michael Góngora called for the removal of the police chief when his contract is up in June.

“The lawlessness has to stop and the message has to get out that Miami Beach is a place of zero tolerance,” he said. “We can’t continue to have our residents held hostage to this situation,” he added.

Other commissioners spoke in support of the police chief and suggested different remedies.

Commissioner Joy Malakoff asked whether the city could stop alcohol sales earlier in the evening, but City Attorney Raul Aguila said that would require commissioners to vote at a special meeting and couldn’t be instituted before this weekend. Malakoff also wanted to know if the city could somehow keep partygoers from posting fights and other misbehavior on social media. She was told the social media postings were protected by the First Amendment.

An ad from the city of Miami Beach urging spring breakers to behave.

This isn’t the first time city officials have grappled with excessive spring break partying.

Last year, a stampede on Ocean Drive prompted police to temporarily close the eastbound MacArthur Causeway. Afterward, one commissioner suggested blasting classical music from loudspeakers to dampen the party atmosphere.

In preparation for spring break this year, the city launched a marketing campaign urging college kids to behave with slogans like “Come on vacation, don’t leave on probation” and “Choose your bars wisely.” The police department also wrote letters to fraternities, sororities and universities across the country.

But on Tuesday, city officials said they believed South Florida residents were mostly to blame for the raucous behavior. Of the 97 people arrested this past weekend, more than half were from the tri-county area, Oates said. Just 11 of those arrested identified themselves as college students, although Oates acknowledged that others may have been students as well. Last year, 85 people were arrested over the same weekend.

Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán said she wanted to see the city come up with policies to curtail spring break tourism and make Miami Beach a less attractive destination for partygoers, regardless of where they come from.

“I think we need to eliminate this spring break phenomenon as soon as possible,” she said. “I think we need to make it a lot less fun to be here, unfortunately.”