Miami Beach throws more cops at spring break after shooting, crowd confrontation

"It has felt at times that the city is under a level of siege, simply from the volume of people," the city's mayor said


By Martin Vassolo
The Miami Herald

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Concerned about spring break crowds and recent crimes that have angered Miami Beach residents, Mayor Dan Gelber said Wednesday that city and police officials are taking steps to maintain order in South Beach ahead of what could be another hectic weekend.

One night after a deadly shooting, City Hall began closing public parking garages Tuesday evening near the South Beach party strip to everyone but area residents and access card holders. Police, who also closed 10 blocks of Collins Avenue Tuesday night due to big crowds and gridlock, have called for more backup from outside agencies.

Miami-Dade officers, who have supplemented city staffing during weekends this spring break, began their South Beach patrols Tuesday night and will remain in the area through the weekend. In total, 50 additional officers from Miami-Dade and Coral Gables will back up Miami Beach Police this weekend.

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Closing the MacArthur Causeway to eastbound traffic, as was briefly done during spring break 2018, remains an option, according to Interim City Manager Raul Aguila.

"It has felt at times that the city is under a level of siege, simply from the volume of people that are coming," Gelber said at the top of a Wednesday Miami Beach Commission meeting, during which commissioners voted to hire more police in the future.

Over recent weekends, as big crowds in South Beach during spring break have clashed with police and viral videos have shown party-hungry visitors acting out, an increasingly loud chorus of residents has said the party in South Beach's popular entertainment district has made life in their neighborhoods unbearable.

A 27-year-old man was found fatally shot Monday near a residential area on Pine Tree Drive and 24th Street, an incident police say was tied to an early evening shooting in South Beach. On Friday, police used pepper spray to disperse a large crowd they say surrounded them near Ocean Drive. A 19-year-old New York man was slammed to the ground and arrested after pushing and grabbing police.

While Gelber hopes the city's efforts can help pacify the South Beach party scene, he said there is no quick fix. His oft-repeated vision for the Art Deco district is to change its business model to cater more to cultural and culinary tastes, and less to tourists in town to party till you drop.

"I think the problem is that we don't have an immediate answer," he said. "I'd love to be able to say we've got this under control, but Monday night was a horrible night. And it was a Monday night. It wasn't even a weekend night."

Some South Beach residents who called into Wednesday's virtual meeting said they felt unsafe leaving home at night.

Rima Gerhard, a West Avenue resident, said some parents are not letting their children leave home during spring break.

"I myself have not left my house over the weekend because I just don't want to be endangered," she told commissioners. "I see guns are being seized, there's a lot of criminals here. This is really not anything that I can raise my kids in."

The long-existing tension between the city's residents and seasonal visitors appears to have neared a breaking point. The city's struggles with spring break crowds and unruly guests have made national news in recent days. City leaders said during the commission meeting Wednesday that it feels like a criminal element has besieged South Beach.

"This is obviously an emergency situation," Commissioner Steven Meiner said. "South Beach is somewhat under assault right now, and we need to address it."

Between Feb. 3 and March 15, police made 894 arrests and seized 78 guns across the city. Half of those arrested live outside Florida. That data set, provided by the police department, includes 12 days of arrests that occurred before spring break began Feb. 15.

"We will make every adjustment that we need to our current plan in order to ensure" that people remain safe, Police Chief Richard Clements said during a Tuesday press conference.

Even amid the pandemic, the crush of visitors has been welcomed by many South Beach businesses and service workers hit hard by emergency closures over the past year. But Gelber said the world-famous party scene that stretches from Ocean Drive to Washington and Collins avenues has become inconsistent with the growing residential communities that surround the Art Deco district. He said while most visitors to the city intend no harm, South Beach has become "more perilous than it should ever be."

"I know it's not easy for me or anybody to say this because we are a hospitality city and typically our businesses want us to be saying, 'Hey come on down. Everything's great here,' " Gelber said. "But it's not."

With an eye toward next spring break, the commission voted unanimously Wednesday to authorize police to temporarily hire 15 new officers and two sergeants who would patrol the South Beach strip. The reinforcements wouldn't hit the streets until next year and will cost the city $5.5 million, including for equipment. Commissioners also voted to create a "real time crime center" and hire two crime analysts to monitor surveillance cameras, while accelerating current plans to enhance the city's camera system.

Flamingo Park resident James LaMorte, 58, said he isn't waiting around for reinforcements to arrive.

After living in South Beach for three years, the street-market owner told the Miami Herald on Monday he is going to search for a new apartment in Fort Lauderdale.

"I don't leave my house after dark," said LaMorte, the president of Metro Flea Miami. "I'm just so fed up with how bad things have gotten here."

(c)2021 Miami Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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